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Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Approaches: Which is Right for You?

Published By Team AdaptiveWork

One of the things that makes project management so interesting is that no one can ever say that they have all the answers. Project management approaches and strategies are constantly being evaluated, revised and improved, and successful project managers make it a priority to stay informed about the latest developments in their field.

Differences in choosing between a top-down or bottom-up project management approach.

In recent years, 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 project management approaches. A top-down strategy calls for all key 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.

The 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. Possible cons include:

  • Demoralizing and demotivating team culture in which members have little control over their responsibilities and methods
  • Risk of surprises and issues down the road due to gaps in leaders’ expectations and team members’ capacities

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 a great 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.

Organizations in rapidly-evolving industries like software and technology have even stronger incentives to move to bottom-up project management, in order to get 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.

Increase your business agility with Planview AdaptiveWork’s project management software

Clarizen’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.


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Written by Team AdaptiveWork