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Project Management 2.0

Leveraging the Advantages of Top-Down and Bottom-Up

Andrew Filev's Product Management 2.0 Blog

Nowadays we can observe changes going on in management and especially project management in organizations. More and more, organizations are abandoning top-down management style. Among them are the New York Times, Tribune Co., Ernst & Young and many others. Even the world's biggest corporations, such as Toyota and IBM, are trying to implement bottom-up management style elements in some of their departments.

The bottom-up approach to management is becoming more and more popular. However, the discussions about the two major approaches are still hot. What is the reason for the ongoing changes in management processes? The answer to this question will be obvious when we compare the two management styles.

The Top-down Approach to Project Management

Today, many projects are still managed according to the top-down approach. The essence of this approach is that all the directions come from the top. The top management establishes project objectives and provides guidelines, information, plans and fund processes. The manager clearly communicates his expectations to each person who has a role to play in the project. According to advocates of this approach, the managers should be as specific as possible when communicating expectations, since ambiguity opens the door for potential failure. This approach strictly follows a formal process.

The top-down approach is applied in many organizations. Let’s have a look at the New York Times, a leader in the newspaper industry. According to ajr.com (American Journalism Review) several years ago, The Times’ executive management felt that they were doing the opposite of what was needed to create a vibrant workplace and a successful enterprise. They centralized power and implemented overall control among masthead editors. The latter introduced the same management pattern in the projects they were responsible for. Project decisions were influenced by the emotions and opinions of only one person – the project manager. What was the result? People 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 the management style should be changed by giving more freedom to the teams. It took a lot of time to introduce a bottom-up approach to management. However, it was worth the time and effort, as the collaboration is now enhanced and teams work more productively.

The problems caused by a top-down approach can be observed in many organizations with a traditional management style. Experience shows that this approach can reduce productivity and cause bottlenecks or so-called lockdowns.  “Lockdown” gives a project manager as much control as possible over his team. This inflexibility can cause unnecessary pain and slow down the project completion.

The Bottom-up Approach to Project Management


All the above mentioned factors can lead projects to failure, and that is why many organizations have turned to a bottom-up management style or at least some of its elements. The New York Times is a good example. Bottom-up management proactively seeks the input of the team in the project executing process. Employees are invited to participate in every step of the process, and the team as a whole agrees on a course of action. This approach allows managers to communicate goals and value, e.g. through milestone planning. Then team members have to develop personal to-do lists with the steps necessary to reach the milestones on their own. It is up to them to choose the methods and ways to perform their tasks.

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 increased. Individual members of the team can provide project solutions that are driven more by practical requirements than abstract notions. The planning process flows significantly faster, as it is facilitated by a number of people. 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 is also 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 of the advantages, the bottom-up approach is not the perfect solution, as sometimes it lacks clarity and control. Many experts agree that a bottom-up style alone will not make your projects flourish. A wise project manager will take the best practices from the two approaches and try to create a hybrid method.

Taking the Best from the Two Approaches

Would it be possible to effectively introduce the best bottom-up practices to an organization by utilizing  traditional tools? Traditional project management software was mostly designed with the top-down approach in mind and are not meant for the bottom-up management. This software is complex and hard to master. This software is focused on the project manager and place him or her in the center or the project. Team members very often do not have access to the project plan and cannot make contributions. The employees send their updates to the project manager in disconnected files via e-mail. The project manager then collects all the data and puts the information manually into  the project plan. Then he or she communicates the changes to the upper management. The misalignment between the bottom-up best principles and the old tools causes a  situation where the project manager's talents often are buried by the routine work. The amount of  mechanical control/synchronization work sometimes does not leave time for leadership.

The old methods of how people share and receive information have been radically transformed in the recent times. Now there are more means for the successful implementation of the bottom-up management best practices. These means are Enterprise 2.0 technologies – wikis, blogs, and collaboration tools. 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 in a flexible, collaborative environment brought by second-generation project management software. The project manager is the one to conduct the work and choose the right direction for the project development, based on the information received from the individual employees.

Thus, the part the project manager plays in the project changes. Project Management 2.0 software helps him or her create complete delegation. It means that people become less dependent on the manager as a to-do generator. Rather than a taskmaster, he or she turns into a project leader who facilitates the team communications, provides a creative working environment and guides the team. He or she becomes a visionary who can leverage the  team strengths and weaknesses and adjust project development to the external changes. Individual team members still have the freedom and responsibility to find their way to the next milestone.

The second-generation tools allow you to merge the advantages of the two initial management approaches. These tools let project managers combine control and collaboration, clarity of project goals and visibility of internal organizational processes. 

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Thousands of companies now confirm that bottom-up project management, implemented with the help of Enterprise 2.0 tools, improved their business performance. Among them are Bell Canada, Sun and Yahoo. They created corporate blogs to streamline project communications. 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. The projects are delivered much more rapidly, and this is to everyone’s benefit.


[This article appeared orignally here and is reproduced in full here by kind permission of the author.]

More Stories By Andrew Filev

Since 2001, Andrew Filev has been managing software teams in a global environment. His technical expertise and his management vision are reflected in online and offline articles that have had hundreds of thousands of readers. His ideas on new trends in project management are published in his blog www.wrike.com/projectmanagement.htm. He has given speeches on new trends in project management and deployment of the next-generation, Web-based applications on deferent events, including the PMI Silicon Valley Tools and Techniques Forum and the Office 2.0 Conference (Project Management panel). Filev's innovative ideas and passion to improve project management tools are applied in Wrike, a leading online project management solution which he now leads the company as a founder and CEO. He graduated from St. Petersburg State University and the Stockholm School of Economics. He also received the honored award of Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP).

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