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Get Maximum Benefits of Merging Top-down and Bottom-up Project Management

Best Practice | By Andrew Filev | Read time minutes

3D up and down arrows

Nowadays, the bottom-up approach to management is becoming more and more popular. More and more, organisations are abandoning the top-down management style. Among them are the New York Times, Tribune Co., Ernst & Young and many others. Even the world biggest corporations, such as Toyota and IBM, are trying to implement bottom-up management style elements in some of their departments. However, managers are still arguing over which approach is more beneficial for organisations. To understand the reason for the ongoing changes in management processes, we need to compare the two management styles.

New York Times Case: Problems Caused by the Top-down Approach

The essence of the top-down approach is that all the directions come from the top. The top management establishes project objectives and provides guidelines, information, plans and funding processes. The manager clearly communicates his expectations to each project team member. To advocates of this approach, ambiguity opens the door for potential failure, so managers should be as specific as possible when communicating their expectations.

One of organisations applying a top-down management style was the New York Times, a leader in the newspaper industry. According to American Journalism Review, several years ago, the Times' executive management felt that what they were doing was not able to create a vibrant workplace and a successful enterprise. The power was centralised. Masthead editors had overall control. The editors naturally introduced the same management pattern in the projects for which they were responsible. Project managers' emotions and opinions influenced all the project decisions. As a result, people felt that their voices didn't count, that they weren't listened to. Journalists were not morally motivated to do their jobs. There was no effective collaboration between them. The managing executives then realised that more freedom should be given to the teams. It took a lot of time to introduce bottom-up style elements to management. However, it was worth the time and effort, as the collaboration is now enhanced, and teams work more productively.

Similar problems can be observed in many organisations with a traditional management style. Practice shows that the top-down approach can reduce productivity and cause bottlenecks or so-called lockdowns. Lockdown gives a project manager as much control over his team as possible. This inflexibility can cause unnecessary pain and slow down the project work.

Is the Bottom-up Approach Better?

The factors mentioned above can lead the best projects to failure. That is the reason why many organisations, such as the New York Times, try to implement a bottom-up management style or at least some of its elements. Bottom-up management proactively seeks the input of the team in the project executing process. Employees are invited to participate in every step of the process. The team as a whole agrees on the course of action. This approach allows managers to communicate goals and value, e.g. through milestone planning. Then team members develop personal to-do lists, which include the steps necessary to reach the milestones on their own. It is up to them to choose the methods and ways to perform their tasks. The advantage of this approach is that it empowers team members to think more creatively. They know that their initiatives are appreciated. The team members' motivation to work and make the project a success is increased. The planning process flows significantly faster, as it is facilitated by a number of people. The to-do lists of all the team members are collected into the detailed project master plan. Schedules, budgets and results are transparent. The project manager makes all the issues clear to avoid as many surprises as possible.

However, despite all of the enumerated advantages, the bottom-up approach is not the perfect solution. Sometimes it lacks clarity and control. A lot of experts agree that a bottom-up style alone will not make your projects flourish. The wisest thing for a project manager to do would be to take the best practices from the two approaches and try to create a hybrid method.

Leveraging Advantages of the Two Styles

Is it possible to successfully introduce the best bottom-up practices to an organisation by utilising traditional tools? Traditional project management software was originally designed with the top-down approach in mind. Traditional applications are not meant for bottom-up management. They are complex and hard to master. These applications are focused on the project manager and make him the major link in project communications. Team members very often do not have access to the project plan and cannot make contributions. The employees email their updates to the project manager in disconnected files. The project manager then has to collect all the data and put the information manually into the project plan. Then he has to communicate the changes to the corporate executives. The misalignment between the bottom-up best principles and the old tools may cause situations when the project manager's talents are buried by the routine operations. Sometimes project managers just do not have time for leadership.

The old methods of how people share and receive information have been radically transformed in recent years. Now there are more means for the successful implementation of the bottom-up management best practices. These are Enterprise 2.0 technologies, such as wikis, blogs and collaboration tools. The new technologies come into organisations and change the old way of managing projects. They turn traditional project management into Project Management 2.0 and bring new patterns of collaboration, which are based on collective intelligence. Collective intelligence is a collection of valuable knowledge from different fields that each project team member is an expert in. This knowledge is now successfully collected and shared in a flexible, collaborative environment brought by second-generation project management software. The project manager is the one to conduct the work and choose the right direction for the project development, based on the information received from individual employees.

The role the project manager plays in the project changes. Project Management 2.0 software helps him create complete delegation. People become less dependent on the manager as a to-do generator. The project manager turns from a taskmaster into a project leader who facilitates the team communications, provides a creative working environment and guides the team. He becomes a visionary who can leverage the team strengths and weaknesses and adjust project development to the external changes.

The second-generation tools allow project managers to merge the advantages of the two initial management approaches. These applications let you combine control and collaboration, clarity of project goals and visibility of internal organisational processes.

Top Down Bottom Up Project Management Diagram

Thousands of companies now report that bottom-up project management, implemented with the help of Enterprise 2.0 tools, improved their business performance. Among them are Bell Canada, Sun and Yahoo. These corporations created their corporate blogs to streamline project communications. Even giants, such as IBM, realise the benefits of allowing contributors to have a more active hand in how collaborative work is organised.

Democratising project management is never an end in itself. The primary goal is always to find ways to make project management and project collaboration more efficient. New technologies applied to projects offer us the powerful ability to make projects more successful and teams more productive. With the help of new-generation tools, projects can be delivered much faster, and this is to everyone's benefit.

Since 2001, Andrew Filev has been managing software teams in a global environment. His technical expertise and his management vision are reflected in online and offline articles that have had hundreds of thousands of readers. His ideas on new trends in project management are published in our Outcollaborate Blog. Andrew has given speeches on new trends in project management and deployment of the next-generation, Web-based applications on deferent events, including the PMI Silicon Valley Tools and Techniques Forum and the Office 2.0 Conference (Project Management panel).

Andrew's innovative ideas and passion to improve project management tools are applied in Wrike, a leading online project management solution. Andrew now leads the company as a founder and CEO.

Andrew graduated from St. Petersburg State University and the Stockholm School of Economics. He also received the honoured award of Microsoft Most Valuable Professional.


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