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Top-down or bottom-up? Smart project managers use both

PostsProject management
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

March 25, 2021

This post was originally published on March 5, 2019, and updated most recently on March 25, 2021.

There’s a lot of buzz surrounding the bottom-up management approach. Some of the biggest and most progressive companies around have recently switched from the top-down approach to bottom-up, including The New York Times, Ernst & Young, and Toyota. But what’s the difference? And which should you choose? Here’s the lowdown on each.

What’s a top-down approach?

The top-down approach (also known as ‘autocratic leadership’) involves a higher figure in the business determining the overarching project deadlines, plans, and budget. This person designs and assigns all deliverables to the rest of the employees.

Its benefits include a clear line of authority, standardized processes and services, and a streamlined approach to goals. There’s also a decrease in risk because the higher-ranking employees should, theoretically, know more about the business and its needs. It’s the more traditional approach of the two.

Proceed with caution

The problem with a top-down approach is this: High-level managers are often too distant from individual employees to really know their individual needs and competencies. And when one person’s decisions and emotions shape an entire organization’s direction, issues invariably arise.

Team members feel as though their voices and opinions go unheard. And information gets bottlenecked at the manager who’s swamped with email requests and board member meetings. This autocratic approach also limits employees’ control and decision-making freedom, resulting in less creativity and collaboration between employees and managers.

Using the top-down approach in project management

Project managers need to allocate resources, plan budgets, and create a rough timeline. Using a top-down approach, project managers can make decisions quickly, but their predictions may not be particularly precise. Consequently, there’s a greater potential for problems, inaccuracies, and ultimately delays.

Another issue with this approach is the restrictive workflow, which tends to look a little like this:

  1. Team members update the manager via email.
  2. The project manager inputs this data into various files and spreadsheets.
  3. The project manager feeds these updates back to their boss, the board, or stakeholders.

This means the project manager is swamped with admin work while trying to run the project. It’s common to miss emails, leading to a frustrating information bottleneck.

In short, all the downsides of top-down management are amplified through a convoluted communication system. This doesn’t mean projects have to look like this though.

What’s a bottom-up approach?

There’s an alternative. The bottom-up approach relies on a decision-making process that involves the input of the employees at every stage.

Managers communicate overall goals and milestones, which the individual team members then use to design their own personal plans and to-do lists. As team members complete their tasks, information and progress filter back up to the managers. Some of the benefits of this approach include:

  • Engaged employees: team members feel more involved because they know their input makes a difference.
  • Better scheduling: goals are formed around employees’ individual requirements, which makes tasks more achievable and practical.
  • Better collaboration and communication: every employee participates in the decision-making process.
  • More creativity: employees have more space to bounce ideas off one another and solve problems collectively.
  • Improved motivation: employees have more control over their working day and company-wide decisions.
  • More trust: because schedules and budgets are transparent.

Pretty impressive, right? A word of warning though: Using this method prolongs the initial planning stage because you involve more people in the decision-making processes. Maintaining a sense of control and cohesion can also be more of a challenge.

Choosing the right tools for the job

Project management software takes the pain out of progress updates. If you’re taking a top-down approach, invest in software that includes project tracking, automatic notifications, and cloud-based information-sharing — which lets employees access everything they need and report their progress in real-time. This means fewer emails flying around, and less admin for managers. No more ‘just checking you got my email’ emails ever again. Hurrah!

The same benefits apply when using project management software with the bottom-up approach. Simply give employees access to this information and allow them more editing rights. And, because every decision can be tracked and recorded, managers can check-in and keep everything under control, just in case.

Final thoughts

So… which is better? The answer is: it depends. Top-down or bottom-up is essentially a trade-off between speed and accuracy. The method you choose depends on both the type of project you’re working on and the amount of time you have to complete it. And there may be occasions where a project calls for two different approaches.

For example, if you’re planning budgets and schedules for the entire year, then a bottom-up approach will undoubtedly give you more accurate results. But if you have a shorter, smaller project that needs specialist leadership, then top-down is the way to go.

There’s no right or wrong way to tackle this challenge, but knowing your options definitely helps you set off on the right foot. And investing in software that improves collaboration and communication between everyone — whether they’re a director, a board member, or an intern — means the lines of communication are kept as open and clear as possible. And that’s a massive benefit, whichever approach you choose.



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