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Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Planning

written by: Marlene Gundlach • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 7/2/2011

There are debates in project management regarding whether "top-down" or "bottom-up" planning is most effective. Is one option better than the other, or is a combination of the two processes the best approach?

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    Top-Down Planning

    Top-down planning is referred to as strategy. Top-down project planning is focused on keeping the decision making process at the senior level. Goals and quotas are established at the highest level, and those at the top are not often willing to take advice or any guidance from lower level employees. Senior-level managers need to be as specific as possible when laying out expectations since those following the plan are not involved in the planning process. Because employees are not included in any of the decision making process and are often only motivated through either fear or incentives, moral can become an issue.

    With top-down planning, management must choose techniques to align projects and goals. Management holds the sole responsibility for the plans set forth and for the end result. This way of thinking assumes that management knows best how to plan and carry out a project, thus not taking advantage of talented employees who may have more experience with certain aspects of the project. Some see the top-down planning process as a way to make a plan, and not about who develops the plan. It allows management to divide a project into steps, and then into still smaller steps. This continues until the steps can be studied, due-dates can be accurately assigned, and then parts of the project can be assigned to an employee. However, the focus is on long-term goals, and the here-and-now goals can get lost. Often, this approach is applied best to very small projects.

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    Bottom-Up Planning

    Bottom-up planning is referred to as tactics. With bottom-up planning, you give your project deeper focus because you have a larger number of employees involved, each with their own area of expertise. Team members work side-by-side and have input during each stage of the process. Plans are developed at the lowest levels and are then passed on to each next higher level. It then reaches senior management for approval.

    Lower-level employees are more likely to take personal stock in a plan that they are involved in planning. Employees are more motivated and morale improves. While project managers are ultimately responsible for the completion of the project, no matter the steps taken it is management that ultimately must be the final step in the system of checks and balances.

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    Comparing Top-Down and Bottom-Up

    Top-downBottom-up
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    Which Approach to Choose?

    Ultimately, a blend of these two project management techniques is most effective. Using the strength of each, you can align each step so that the needs of the project are met. You can determine the needs of the project at the top, and allow accountability to fall with the lower levels. With this combination, you are merging the vision of senior management with the skills of lower level employees. This allows the project to be completed more efficiently, and lets a company utilize the best of what its employees have to offer.