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Change Management

by Roderick McInnes


Top Down Vs. Bottom Up Strategies In Change Management

“Avoid starting a [change management] strategy from the top down. Top down strategies coming out of think-tanks and away-days typically fail.”

This was the advice given by top change management experts in our infographic Change Management: The Road To Success. But what do you think? Are top down strategies doomed to failure? Or is there a case for this approach when implementing a change management programme. In this post I will be looking at why our experts are so adamant that successful change management only ever comes from the bottom up.

What Is Fundamentally Wrong With A Top Down Approach?

Top down implies that decisions are made and changes imposed from the top with no input from below. Opportunities to collate information and ask for feedback, ideas and suggestions from below are disregarded resulting in two key areas of conflict: employees feel ignored and undervalued, and good, informed ideas from below are never aired.

Without buy in from key stakeholders within an organisation, the changes imposed might meet with resistance, motivation levels and performance fall and there is general disenchantment with the change programme. For successful change management everyone within an organisation must understand the reasons for the programme, the objectives of that programme and its’ implications for them, their department and the organisation as a whole.

Change Management And Communication

Communication is vital, and this is another common issue with the top down strategic approach. With this method business leaders typically identify three key elements:

  1. What they want people to stop doing,
  2. What they want people to start doing,
  3. What they want people to keep doing.

Then they expect everyone to jump to it. Senior management may tell employees exactly what they want them to stop, start or keep doing, but with no communication about why. Explaining why is central to get buy in from your team. Employees on every level of an organisation need to understand why change is being imposed and what the result of that change will be for all concerned.

However, this is not enough for a successful change programme. Even with clear communication from the top if there has been no opportunity for feedback and input, the programme can still fail. After all what if your employees understand why you are imposing change but do not agree with the changes you want them to make?

Bottom Up Change Management Strategies

While transparency and clear communication are good things, the top down approach still imposes a change programme on employees who have not been consulted in the process. In some situations this is unavoidable. For example in crisis management when decisions need to be made fast and there may only be a short time period to implement change, top down can deliver critical results quickly.

But in recent years we have seen a shift in interim change management assignments from crisis to more strategic programmes; enabling organisations to grow, move into new markets, and for transformational change. Here a top down approach is too paternalistic, and ignores the value employees can add to a change programme.

If your organisation is looking for innovation, for sustained change and to implement a programme with the support of all stakeholders, bottom up can deliver this. Crucially this approach will produce a wealth of information to inform the change programme. It will also give all of those involved in the organisation the responsibility to make the change programme a success.

However, this will not happen overnight. Bottom up strategies take time not only in terms of collating feedback and ideas, devising a programme and getting buy in, but also in implementing the change throughout the organisation.

Creating Balance

Therefore in many cases a balance is needed. Where decisions need to be made quickly to deal with impending crisis, top down may be the only realistic option. But when time is on your side there are clear benefits to be had from implementing a collective decision-making process, and getting all involved in your organisation invested in the change programme.

So, returning to the opening statement perhaps top down is not necessarily doomed to failure, but there is certainly a time and a place for this kind of change management strategy.

Do you agree? Please add your experience to the comments below and continue the discussion with our interim community.

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About the Author

Roderick McInnes

Roderick is responsible for all aspects of the marketing and communications mix, ensuring Alium maintains its market position as the leading provider of interim and transformation talent in the UK and internationally.

  • stuart beech

    Hello Roderick. Thanks for the article. It’s good to reflect on these kind of topics. My observation (and it sounds like a ‘compromise’ but I don’t believe it is) is that for effective change you need both top down and bottom up. I do believe that a lot of the ideas and creativity for how businesses can improve often exist within the organisation and it’s important to have mechanisms to identify and develop these. Equally, ‘top management’ (a very generic term, and used more for illustrative purposes here) needs to demonstrate its support / commitment, as people do look for this..
    Food for thought . . . . .

    • Rod McInnes

      Hi Stuart, thanks for the comment and thoughts. It is a subject which provokes a lot of debate, but you are right that you have to “take the team with you” through any change. If you would like to write or be interviewed for a blog piece on this, please let me know. Be great to have your full thoughts.


  • Charles Stuart

    Great article - thought provoking. Agree clarity and engagement are essential, but as you say balance is also important

    • Rod McInnes

      Many thanks Charles!

  • Able and How

    Enjoyable read. “Why” is a word that often gets overlooked but very key. Have you got any other articles?

    Able and How Team

    • RoderickMcInnes

      Thanks, We have lots on here built up over the last 3 years, Check out the rest of our blog and feel free to share.

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