Danger: When are Top-down and Bottom-up not Equally Effective?

In an earlier blog Are you a Top-down or Bottom-up sort of Person?” I opined that, when creating a Work Breakdown Structure, top-down and bottom-up planning are equally effective.  I also believe that you can do better by combining the approaches and my blog describes how.

But Top-down and Bottom-up are not always equally effective.

In fact, in certain circumstances, one of them is a downright danger to the project manager.

How do you compile your project reports?  I am assuming you do compile them because, as much as most PMs hate report writing, we do understand its importance and value.  Indeed, done well, reporting is a complement and supplement to good monitoring and control, rather that the “distraction from real work” that inexperienced PMs often tell me it is.

Once again, there are two approaches one could take: top-down and bottom-up.  I do hope your work-place security filters aren’t blocking all of my references to b-u!

Top-down reporting: figure out what the main message is; articulate it clearly and concisely; supplement this with supporting evidence; relegate the detail and “mandatory” data to an appendix.  (I simplify a little)

Bottom-up reporting: sift the evidence with care; review what it is telling you; articulate the main messages; summarise in a clear and succinct statement.  (more simplification)

These two caricatures reflect different ways people work.
One of them, however is fraught with danger.  Which one?

The answer lies in the field of human psychology and in an area of that discipline that project managers, change managers and all forms of leader need to understand far better than we do: decision-making.  Whilst we are well equipped to make decisions in many circumstances, our in-built mechanisms can introduce dangerous biases at times; which lead us into deep nasty traps.

One such bias, or trap, is called “the confirming evidence trap”.  This biases us towards spotting evidence that confirms what we already believe to be true (regardless of whether the belief is correct).  We selectively filter out dis-confirming evidence, or we acknowledge it and then interpret it incorrectly, to to fit our existing belief.

The histories of ideas and of science are filled with examples, but let’s apply it back to our report writing.  How does this bias affect our two approaches?  Whilst in both cases we are prone to the bias, top-down reporting almost encourages it.  It leaves you extremely unlikely to spot that one piece of data that you have already missed in your regular monitoring.

On the other hand; if you start your reporting process by gathering all of the evidence and review it openly (ideally with a colleague or two), you are far more likely to spot the one piece of evidence that can lead you to a new assessment of your project’s status.

Job done!  Your reporting has added real value, and if it only happens once in every dozen reporting cycles, it still justifies the time taken.

The “so what?”

Review your reporting procedures, strengthen them, commit to them, compile your reports bottom-up, invest in a deep understanding of your project status.


2 thoughts on “Danger: When are Top-down and Bottom-up not Equally Effective?

  1. Glen B. Alleman


    A top down WBS is derived from the Statement of Work.
    A bottom up WBS is a collection of thoughts scraped into a pile.

    The WBS is a structured description of the product and the processes to build the product. If built bottom up the product and its process will have the same architecture – a mess of work with little cohesion.

    1. Mike Clayton Post author

      Whilst this blog post is explicitly about reporting, rather than creating a WBS, I am not sure I’d agree with you about bottom up WBS creation, Glen.

      The blog post I refer to in the opening paragraph, Are you a Top-down or Bottom-up sort of Person?”, is about how we prefer to work. I wholly accept that a bottom-up generated WBS needs to be tidied up and reconciled to the SoW, the objectives and the goal of your project.

      However, some people’s minds work by generating a mass of activities – they naturally focus on the detail. The WBS offers them a way to sort their “collection of thoughts scraped into a pile” into a formal structure.


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