Architecture for Agility or “Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”

Alessandro Gerlinger Romero
4 min readJun 23, 2020


Once upon a time, a queen possessed a magic mirror, which she asked every morning, “Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” The mirror always told the queen that she was the fairest. One day, when the queen asked her mirror, it told her that Snow White was the fairest. — Brothers Grimm

Back in the 1960s, Conway [1] shared the following cornerstone question: is there any predictable relationship between the architecture of an organization and a product that the organization designs in response to a given set of functional requirements?

In fact, Conway introduced the “mirroring hypothesis”, as called nowadays, which states that an organization stamps out an image of its architecture in every product it designs. Fifty years later, MacCormack, Baldwin, and Rusnak tested such a hypothesis and found out strong evidence to support it [2].

The “mirroring hypothesis” may be understood using the following image and concepts.

A schematic view of the “mirroring hypothesis”.

The problem space, the right side of the mirror, is the superset of all possible sets of functional requirements. An organization that is posed to solve a particular set of functional requirements, e.g., the bold green arrow on the right side of the mirror, envisions one specific product, which is, indeed, the reflection of the set of functional requirements taking into account the position of the organization. In the sense that, such position in the problem space, i.e., the organization itself with its architecture, drives the selection of one product in the set of possible products that meet the same set of functional requirements.

Complementarily, the solution space, the left side of the mirror, is the superset of all possible products. As stated previously, one specific product, e.g., the pale green arrow on the left side of the mirror, with its internal architecture, is the output of the design process of the organization for the set of functional requirements. The market judges the product and using some criteria chooses the best one over time.

We are now in the position to address the main point of this work: architecture for agility. One specific product has an architecture, which exhibits specific characteristics, in terms of attributes such as modularity, cost, quality, reliability, availability, and adaptability. It is well known that such attributes are important predictors of product performance, product variety, process flexibility, and even the path of industry evolution [2,3]. Furthermore, as explored earlier, the architecture of the organization that designs the product constrains the solution space, at least, implicitly, due to the mirror. Naturally, members of the organization think their products are the fairest ones, “unfortunately, the pristine black boxes they draw on their whiteboards rarely reflect the actual file-to-file interactions embedded in the source code” [2].

Going backward, Conway [1] concluded that “ways must be found to reward design managers for keeping their organizations lean and flexible”. Therefore, the cornerstone element for better products is the leanness and flexibility of the organization, which in turn must be based on an architecture for agility. Such architecture for agility allows the movement of the organization in the problem space resulting in the capacity to explore multiples possible products in the solution space with possible different architectures. Certainly, architectural innovation fits such exploration of the solution space since it addresses the changing of how components of a product are linked together (its architecture) while leaving the core design concepts (and thus the basic knowledge underlying the components) untouched [3].

Architectural innovation presents established organizations with a subtle challenge. Much of what the organization knows is useful and needs to be applied in the solving of a set of functional requirements, however, some of what it knows is not only not useful by may actually handicap the organization [3]. Once, an architecture for agility is an enabler for architectural innovation.

In summary, the literature confirms the practice in the sense that it is common to find organizations looking at the mirror and seeing the fairest product of all. Nonetheless, the market does not necessarily use the same mirror or a mirror at all, so it may be the case that one day Snow White will be the fairest of all in the mirror on the wall. One path to mitigate such risk, impacting the organization’s longevity, is to emphasize flexibility and leanness through an architecture for agility.


[1] Conway, Melvin E. (April 1968). “How do Committees Invent?”. Datamation. 14 (5): 28–31.

[2] MacCormack, Alan; Rusnak, John; Baldwin, Carliss Y. (2011). “Exploring the Duality between Product and Organizational Architectures: A Test of the Mirroring Hypothesis” (PDF). SSRN Working Paper Series. doi:10.2139/ssrn.1104745. ISSN 1556–5068.

[3] Henderson, R., and K.B. Clark (1990) “Architectural Innovation: The Reconfiguration of Existing Product Technologies and the Failure of Established Firms,” Administrative Sciences Quarterly, 35(1): 9–30.