Being a leader isn’t easy. Whether you’re a senior manager or CEO, the choices you make day to day dictate the overall success of the business. From influencing employee engagement to project progress, there is a lot at stake for key decision-makers.
That’s why it’s important to select the right management approach for your business and team structure. The way you make decisions, who you involve in the process, and how outcomes are shared with the wider team make up your management approach and play a part in defining your business’s culture.
Two common management strategies are the top-down and bottom-up approaches. The top-down approach sees those in leadership roles making decisions before they are shared with the rest of the team. It has many benefits and is used by most traditional businesses, either at the project or business level.
Yet, a top-down approach won’t work for all. If your employees are innovative, creative, and strategic in their thinking, chances are they’ll benefit from a bottom-up approach. This sees all employees given a chance to weigh in.
But what’s best for your team? Choosing the right approach to decision-making can make or break your project. So, let’s get into what’s great (and what’s less than perfect) about each approach.
What is top-down management?
When a business uses the top-down management approach, decisions are made by those in the highest position of power — upper management. They then filter down to the rest of the workforce via team leaders.
This structure looks similar at a project level, too; in an agency’s project teams, the project leaders make decisions about how to move forward or deal with issues before sharing the action plan with their team.
A top-down management style is favored in many industries, including those with a traditional approach to business management.
How this approach works
Projects that are managed using a top-down approach are usually inflexible because decisions have been made by those in senior leadership positions based on strategic and long-term goals.
Decision-makers begin with their desired end goal and create a plan of action to get them there. Once they have agreed on a plan, they communicate this with the rest of the team.
How this information is shared will depend on the business, the number and size of the teams, and the specific matter at hand. Typically, decisions that affect the entire business are shared in town hall meetings or via email, whereas project-specific outcomes are shared in planning meetings or status updates.
Applications for top-down management
Due to its structured nature, the top-down approach is best suited for businesses that lean into tradition. This standard approach to project management leaves little room for change as decisions are final, which won’t suit more agile businesses and projects.
Top-down management suits large organizations with lots of teams and numerous moving parts. Communication can become a challenge in these types of businesses, so standardizing your approach to decision-making can limit opportunities for miscommunication or inconsistency.
At a project level, top-down management works best for teams whose work is recurring and consistent. In these cases, employees likely perform the same tasks each day, using standardized processes, and don’t often seek creative solutions to problems.
- Popular style of management: In many businesses, senior managers are responsible for delegating tasks and making calls on how to move forward. That’s because the top-down approach is considered the gold standard in many industries. It’s straightforward, consistent, and aligns with standardized procedures.
- Simplified communication: Clarity is key, as blurred lines and misunderstandings can lead to problems. A top-down approach uses clearly defined processes of communication, with decisions made by the top level before being filtered down to the rest of the team.
- Fast implementation: Limiting the number of stakeholders who can share their input means decisions can be made quickly. Too many cooks can confuse matters and lead to delays.
- Encourages accountability: Not all our decisions will be good ones. In the event that a bad call is made, it is important to trace this back to the decision maker. Understanding where the decision came from helps teams learn and rectify the issue quickly. This is only possible when it is clear who is responsible for decision-making. Accountability also makes sure people take their responsibilities seriously.
- More challenges for leadership: When decisions can’t be delegated, the onus is on one level of management. This can cause bottlenecks when the team only has one person responsible for making calls on a project.
- Low team engagement: Burnout is a huge buzzword for the 2020s, but many employers fail to recognize when their employees are facing boreout. Under-stimulation can occur when employees — especially creative thinkers — are kept out of decision-making processes. If your team feels you make decisions without considering their feelings, thoughts, and experiences or don’t value their input, they’ll likely become disengaged.
- Less informed decisions: In project management, leaders are often not involved in the day-to-day running of the account, which can mean they are unaware of nuances or problems with processes.
- Less opportunity for creativity: Collaborative working breeds creativity, but there is little room for teamwork with the top-down approach. Junior team members with interesting perspectives are cut out of conversations, and information is not shared between teams, limiting opportunities for innovation.
What is bottom-up management?
Bottom-up management flips this framework on its head. Whereas in top-down management, communication only flows in one direction, there is greater collaboration across the board in bottom-up management.
This marks a shift away from traditional ways of working, which value seniority, experience, and hierarchy above all else.
How this approach works
The main difference between the top-down and bottom-up approaches is that the latter is flexible. It’s favored by more modern industries, especially those that see innovation as the key driver of growth.
A bottom-up management approach is also popular in more modern, disruptive agencies. Those that work within agile frameworks likely already use this approach in scrum teams that rely on stand-ups for daily collaboration and coordination. Similarly, some agencies may take a democratic approach to decision-making, getting employees from across the business together when discussing the future.
Applications for bottom-up management
This approach is best for more modern teams that prioritize flexibility and innovation above hierarchies. It’s typically used by creative teams, including creative agencies and software developers, where collaboration and creativity are more valuable than predictability.
A bottom-up approach can also be implemented at a project level. Introducing brainstorming sessions can provide opportunities for creative thinking and collaboration. Likewise, at the end of the project, a post-mortem involving the entire project team allows employees to give feedback on processes and suggest improvements.
- More informed decisions: When managers make decisions without consulting those on the ground, they miss out on vital information and insights. When everyone is consulted, better decisions can be made; the impact of humble leadership is far-reaching.
- Embrace modernity: While top-down management has its advantages, its reliance on tradition can slow down progress. A bottom-up approach better aligns with modern approaches, embraces innovation, and does away with old-fashioned ideals.
- Greater team motivation: Doing away with hierarchy means everyone’s experiences and views are considered, from interns to CEOs. This goes a long way to improving employee engagement and motivation. Making sure your team is involved in making decisions that impact their work is a great way to get them invested in your long-term success.
- Slower processes: The more people involved when making decisions, the longer it’ll take. However, a consensus doesn’t need to be found for progress to be made. The important thing is to give everyone a chance to contribute. To speed up progress, a small selection of leaders should gather up everyone’s contributions and make informed decisions taking those insights into account.
- Blind spots: More junior team members likely won’t be privy to higher-level business information, such as influences to profit and long-term goals. Yet, these are important to take into account; one way to circumvent this is to make sure at least one person is aware of these factors and can share relevant information as needed.
- Won’t work for everybody: Not everyone will be comfortable being open and honest about what they feel does and doesn’t work. Providing avenues for employees to share thoughts anonymously via surveys can reduce anxiety and facilitate honest conversation.
How to do great teamwork
Whether your business embraces innovation or prioritizes consistency, your people are at the heart of what you do. Both approaches have their benefits; their value comes from how well your team communicates.
Communication will make or break your management approach. For businesses using a bottom-up approach, use a RACI matrix to assign and track levels of responsibility. Project management tools can help keep everyone in the loop and make information widely accessible.
Ask for feedback and listen
Even if your team isn’t involved in decision-making processes, their opinions are still valuable. Regularly ask for feedback and make sure to listen; you never know what insights you may gain.
Leaps of faith have their merit, but all decisions should be rooted in data. Using a project management tool like Forecast can help you track project progress, uncover inefficiencies, and understand how decisions around processes are affecting your team’s productivity and quality of output.
Try Forecast out for yourself and make better decisions by signing up for a free trial below.