The Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Approach: What Works?
By: Baglan Rhymes
One reality of project management that makes it so interesting is no one can honestly say they have all the answers. Like the mysteries of antiquities, approaches and strategies are always changing. Successful project managers know to re-evaluate, revise and improve constantly. The best in the business make it a priority to stay informed of all the latest developments and advances in the field. Recently, the world of project management has been the scene of a growing debate over two fundamentally different approaches to defining and assigning project tasks: the top-down approach vs. the bottom-up approach. Here, we’ll take a quick look at the benefits and limitations of each strategy.
Top-Down Project Management
The top-down approach is the more traditional of the two approaches. A top-down strategy calls for all critical decisions to be made by the project manager or senior organizational leaders. When a project is managed from the top down, the work breakdown structure and project plan are usually completed by the project manager alone, after which team members are told which tasks they will be completing and when their tasks are due.
Pros and Cons of a Top-Down Approach
Top-down project management remains very common, and it is well suited to projects in which there are few unfamiliar tasks and few unique challenges to be met. Its pros include:
- Straightforward planning phase because decision-making is centralized
- Expectations are unified, while roles and responsibilities are clear
However, many organizations have begun to find that the top-down approach has its limitations in some modern projects.
The Cons of a Top-Down Approach:
- Risk of surprises and issues down the road due to gaps in leaders’ expectations and team members’ capacities
- Demoralizing and demotivating team culture in which members have little control over their responsibilities and methods
The Bottom-Up Approach
Bottom-up project management is rapidly gaining popularity, especially in industries where projects tend to involve new challenges that require innovative solutions.
In the bottom-up model, project objectives are still determined by organizational leadership, but the team members who will be doing the work are asked to provide input as to how the project goals will be met. Task lists and project timelines are usually not completed until after the project team members have weighed in, which often results in more realistic schedules and fewer surprises down the road.
Pros and Cons of the Bottom-Up Approach
Companies using more bottom-up strategies for projects often find the following positive outcomes:
- Higher employee engagement, which can improve morale and accountability
- Lower risk of surprises and issues later on because employees’ capacities are considered at the outset
However, the bottom-up approach has its drawbacks, too, and isn’t an excellent fit for all projects or teams.
For example, the initial project phases can take significantly longer, as project managers need to incorporate input from a large number of stakeholders into the project plan.
Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up: Choosing a Direction
Few organizations are likely to make a formal decision to adopt either the top-down or bottom-up approach for every project. Instead, more and more companies are looking for ways to incorporate certain elements of the bottom-up philosophy into their current project management practices. Even companies in industries where projects are typically repeatable and predictable can improve their employee morale by allowing team members to participate in the project planning process.
For example organizations in rapidly-evolving industries like software and technology have even stronger incentives to consider bottom-up project management in order to get the maximum benefit from their employees’ expertise and creativity. In fact, many companies and teams are taking inspiration from Agile projects by making their decision-making processes more decentralized.
Planview’s highly flexible project management solutions can help you find the right project management approach for your organization. Whether you prefer the bottom-up or top-down approach, be sure to avoid the top project management surprises that’ll blow your project budget.
While frustrating, timesheets are an integral component of successful management. A typical resource manager oversees a team working on multiple projects simultaneously. The manager needs to ensure that the right people with the right skill sets are assigned to the appropriate projects as they arise, so a clear understanding of current and future capabilities and capacity is essential. For this, the manager needs to have a degree of certainty that the team is entering project time regularly and reliably.