Top-down and Bottom-up Project Management: Leveraging the Advantages of the Two Approaches

Andrew Filev , Thursday, February 07, 2008
Top-down and Bottom-up Project Management: Leveraging the Advantages of the Two Approaches
Significant changes are taking place in management and especially project management today. We hear that organizations, like the New York Times, Tribune Co., Ernst & Young switched from the so-called top-down management style to bottom-up management. Others, including some of the world’s biggest corporations, such as Toyota and IBM, implemented bottom-up management style elements in some of their departments. The popularity of the bottom-up approach to management is growing. In spite of this fact, the discussions about the two major approaches are still hot. Why have organizations become so anxious about changing their management style? If we compare the two management approaches, the answer to this question will be clear. 
Managing projects top-down

The top-down approach remains extremely popular in contemporary project management. The phrase “top-down” means that all the directions come from the top. Project objectives are established by the top management. Top managers provide guidelines, information, plans and fund processes. All of the project manager’s expectations are clearly communicated to each project participant. Following this approach, ambiguity opens the door for potential failure, and the managers should be as specific as possible when communicating their expectations. Process formality is very important for this approach.

Examples of the top-down approach applications can be found in many organizations. One of such example is the New York Times, a leader in the newspaper industry. Several years ago, American Journalism Review ( reported that The Times’ executive management felt that they were far from what was necessary for creation of a vibrant workplace and a successful organization. Power was centralized and masthead editors experienced overall control. Editors introduced the same management pattern in the projects for which they were responsible. One person’s emotions and opinions influenced all the project decisions, and this person was the project manager. What was the result? Team members felt that they weren't listened to, that their voices didn't count. There was no effective collaboration between the journalists. They were not morally motivated to do their jobs. The managing executives then realized that they needed to give more freedom to the teams and change their management style. It took quite a while to introduce bottom-up management to the organization. But, obviously, it was worth the time and effort, as New York Times employees say that collaboration became much more efficient, and team members now work together more productively.

Similar problems caused by utilizing the top-down approach can be observed in many organizations with a traditional management style. Experience shows that this top-down management often results in reduced productivity and causes bottlenecks or so-called lockdowns. A lockdown gives the project manager total control over his team. Such lockdowns can lead to unnecessary pain and significantly slow down a project’s completion.

Bottom-up project management options

The factors mentioned above may play a vital role in a project’s failure, and this is the reason why numerous organizations have turned to a bottom-up management style or at least some of its elements. The New York Times is one of the good examples. The bottom-up approach implies proactive team input in the project executing process. Team members are invited to participate in every step of the management process. The decision on a course of action is taken by the whole team. Bottom-up style allows managers to communicate goals and value, e.g. through milestone planning. Then team members are encouraged to develop personal to-do lists with the steps necessary to reach the milestones on their own. The choice of methods and ways to perform their tasks is up to the team. The advantage of this approach is that it empowers team members to think more creatively. They feel involved into the project development and know that their initiatives are appreciated. The team members’ motivation to work and make the project a success is doubled. Individual members of the team get an opportunity to come up with project solutions that are focused more on practical requirements than on abstract notions. The planning process is facilitated by a number of people, which makes it flow significantly faster. The to-do lists of all the team members are collected into the detailed general project plan. Schedules, budgets and results are transparent. Issues are made clear by the project manager to avoid as many surprises as possible. Bottom-up project management can also be viewed as a way of coping with the increasing gap between the information necessary to manage knowledge workers and the ability of managers to acquire and apply this information.

However, despite all its the advantages, the bottom-up style alone will not make your projects flourish.  According to many experts, the bottom-up approach is not the perfect solution, as sometimes it lacks clarity and control. The best way is to find a balance between the two opposite approaches and take the best practices from both of them.

Perfect balance

If you have tried introducing the best bottom-up practices to your organization, you have probably found it difficult to do that while utilizing traditional tools for project management. Traditional project management software, like Microsoft Project, was mostly designed to fit the use of the top-down approach and is not meant for the bottom-up management style. This software is focused on the project manager and places him or her in the center of the project communications. Team members very often have read-only access to the project plan and cannot make any contributions or changes. The employees send their updates to the project manager in disconnected files via e-mail. The project manager then has to collect all the data and put the information manually into the project plan. After that, he or she has to communicate the changes to the corporate executives. All these routine procedures lead to a situation where the project manager's talents often are buried by the routine work. The huge amount of mechanical control/synchronization work often leaves little very time for leadership from the project manager.

The good news is the situation is changing thanks to the transformations going on in how people share and receive information. More methods for the successful implementation of the bottom-up management best practices have emerged. These methods include are Enterprise 2.0 technologies – wikis, blogs, social networks, collaboration tools, etc. They come into organizations and change the original way of executing 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 shared in a flexible, collaborative environment brought by second-generation project management software. The project manager is the one to conduct the work of his team and choose the right direction for the project development, based on the information received from the individual employees.

Thus, the role the project manager plays in the project changes. Project Management 2.0 software facilitates delegation. It means that people become less dependent on the manager as a to-do generator. The project manager turns from a taskmaster into a project leader. His role is to facilitate the team communications, provide a creative working environment and guide the team. He or she becomes a visionary able to leverage the team strengths and weaknesses and adjust the project development, based on various external changes. Individual team members still have the freedom and responsibility to find their way to the next milestone.

With the help of the second-generation project management tools, managers can merge the advantages of the two management approaches. These tools help them to combine control and collaboration, clarity of project goals and visibility of internal organizational processes. 


Thousands of companies, such as Bell Canada, Sun and Yahoo now confirm that bottom-up project management, implemented with the help of Enterprise 2.0 tools, improved their business performance. Some companies created corporate blogs to streamline project communications; others introduced wikis to get their customers’ feedback. Even giants, such as  IBM,  realize the benefits of allowing contributors to have a more active hand in how collaborative work is organized.

My conclusion will be that democratizing 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 ability to make projects more successful and teams more productive. At the end of the day, projects are delivered faster, and this is to  everyone’s benefit.

Comments (9)

  • Glen Alleman, Friday, 18 September, 2009

    Why the polar opposites.

    Scrum has very strong imposed processes.

    Scrum has overall control, starting with the planning session and ending with the post iteration review.

    Every step along the way to defined and prescribed in the Scrum process.

    If there are project teams in the Top Down approach where they feel their opinion doesn't count, this is simply BAD management, independent of the method. I've sat at the table with self-proclaimed gurus of agile where any suggestion of changes to fit the environment 21CFR for example, where met with strong rejection. We ended up tossing them and their company our and going back to the method that worked. This is after several mullion $'s of consulting from the most recognized name in agile consulting.

    I'd suggest your approach to Project Management 2.0 is a non-starter in any firm I've been in. Too many platitudes, unsubstanties claims, no actionable outcomes and no units of measure meaningful to the buyer.

    PM 2.0 needs to be "sold" in much better ways than this.
  • Andrew, Saturday, 19 September, 2009

    The thesis of the blog post above is that project management in particular and management in general should be balanced. Judging by your comment about "BAD management" there's no disagreement there, so I'm not particularly sure why it's a non-starter in firms where you've been.

    I didn't understand your comment on Scrum. First, it looks like you are mixing the existence of a process and the nature of the process. Scrum is a process, there's no question there. It's very flat and employee driven. Second, I didn't even mention Scrum, so I'm not sure why you're picking on it. People like to project their thoughts (including frustration) on people and environment around them.

    It's sad that it took your management so much time and money to figure out that your consultants were not a good fit for your company from regulatory compliance and cultural perspectives. I don't know you, I don't know them, and this blog post has nothing to do with it, except that if your management had better leveraged the bottom up knowledge coming from home talent (you), they might have saved millions. Think about it next time your throw away suggestions for organizations to think about importance of bottom up management practices and call those suggestions platitudes. We often don't notice things in front of our eyes.

    An interesting fact from my personal experience (not trying to generalize here) - some authoritative managers I know are thinking that they are very balanced if not bottom-up driven. No implications or projections here, just an interesting fact about human psychology. At the end of the day, the bureaucrats who create red tape for their employees never think or see it that way, it's always for the greater good.
    I find Netflix's presentation quite interesting - Amongst other things it gives an interesting view on why many companies become bureaucratic as they grow, what are the [valid] arguments for that in the short-term and how that approach fails in the long term.

  • Glen Alleman, Saturday, 19 September, 2009
    A core learning for any business is that bureaucracy protects the organization the incompetent.

    The non-starter aspects of your picture is that the box on the right is unsubstantiated opinion, which appears to derived from anecdotal experience.

    Maybe if the post had a lead in that said "in my personal experience, these are the attributes of a dysfunctional top down organization," I'd be less inclined to challenge your assertion that the bottom up approach is being painted here as the "second coming."
  • Glen Alleman, Saturday, 19 September, 2009

    Yes the NetFlix slides are interesting. Are they scalable, transferable to other contexts, effective in general?

    I'd say as a manager of large groups in highly regulated environments - No. But your experience may be different.

    NetFlix (and I'm a customer) is essentially a warehousing fulfillment business model, where operational efficiency is critical. I place my order, they ship, I return, they put the DVD back in stock. Lots of automation.

    This is one of several 1,000 business models. While a wonderful example, it's narrowly focused and the connection to general project management appears to be open for the moment.

    How do you see the NetFlix presentation being applied to say 21CFR software development?
  • Andrew, Sunday, 20 September, 2009
    Hi Glen,

    On your subjectiveness remark:
    I agree that my writing gets subjective here and there and I see nothing bad in it. Same applies to your writing, to any other writing in the management space, and to anything that goes beyond copying. Management as a discipline is very subjective and has more to do with heuristics than science. When it comes closer to science it's often called social psychology or economics. Project management is full of heuristics, personal experiences and anecdotes, it's not physics.

    If we're onto disclaimers, let me add another one: I deliberately mix in my writing traditional project management ground requiring unique projects with areas of general management that don't necessarily follow strict definition of projects, it's one of the premise of PM2.0 to me. Talent management, leveraging collective intelligence, adopting to changing business environments, and many other things go beyond unique projects and apply to organizations and management in general.

    Your remarks about Netflix presentation sound very strange. The presentation is solely focused on creative work and strategies that work in that environment. I wonder if you have read it before jumping into debates with warehouse argument... Is there a single slide amongst those 128 slides that makes this slide deck more (or less) applicable to Netflix than say Microsoft? In essence your warehouse remark combined with the fact that Netflix presentations focuses on creative work contrargues with your own conclusion on the narrow focus. I'm puzzled.

    On your question where Netflix approach will work everywhere, the answer is obvious "No". The slide-deck covers their personal view on managing creative workforce. Some environments don't require creativity or innovation and don't need these strategies.

    Software development is certainly an area that should be full of creativity and innovation. So CFR21 or not, good talent management practices certainly applies along with careful thinking. That said, every model has to be adjusted to a certain context. Nobody advises you to hire a bunch of juniors and let them ruin your project. Slides 59 and 79 in Netflix's deck give their view on applicability. Where's that border in your particular case is not a question to Netflix, it's a question to you.

    Also, CFR21 is so broad, then when you say CFR21 software development, I hardly get an idea of what exactly you are developing or managing, what processes you have, etc.. CFR21 is not a shield to use against any idea that doesn't align with your current practices and likes. Give me and readers some cases - this will turn from a groundless argument into a very interesting and helpful discussion for everybody to learn.

    I personally would love to hear your constructive comments on how you leverage bottom-up knowledge in a regulated environment, what talent management practices you use, what works and what doesn't.
  • Gagan, Monday, 21 September, 2009
    Thanks Andrew for sharing great thoughts. I am a regular follower of your articles in different sites, blogs and even podcasts. I hope you don't mind if you use some of your ideas expressed in the articles in my writings - of course mentioning credits/references to you and wrike.
  • Hugh Heng, Monday, 21 September, 2009
    Glen, I've been following your discussion of PM 2.0 and I have one question: if you think that the term "Project Management 2.0" is not worth using, why do you even try to define it?
  • Glen B. Alleman, Monday, 21 September, 2009

    It was a retorical question. There is no definition, other than the use of Web 2.0 tools, which of course have little or nothing to do with the success of a project in the absence of people and processes.
  • Andrew, Monday, 21 September, 2009
    You're more than welcome.
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Andrew Filev

Andrew Filev is an experienced project manager and a successful entrepreneur. He has been managing software teams since 2001 with the help of new-generation collaboration and management applications. The Project Management 2.0 blog reflects his views on changes going on in contemporary project management, thanks to the influence of collaborative web-based technologies. More >>

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