Collaboration, Posts, Project Management, Team Management

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.

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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 (www.ajr.com) 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 Ooptions

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 such organization. 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.

Find Your Perfect Management 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.

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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.

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