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One of the oldest, and often more heated debates in the project management world has to do with bottom up and top down approaches to project planning. 

Those on Team Top Down proclaim that their preferred approach lets leaders do what they’re supposed to do: establish goals, select techniques, and streamline the planning process. They also point out that while the bottom up approach has a nice, inclusive and democratic feel about it, it’s impractical and unsustainable.

Bottom Up and Top Down Approaches- Ending the Great Project Planning DebateOf course, those on Team Bottom Up view things rather differently. They praise the virtues of how their preferred approach is flexible, responsive and smarter, since it requires input from resources who will be accountable for project plan execution. They also note that the top down approach is error-prone and alienating.

And the Winner is…

Unlike many debates, the winning side here is neither and both, because the notion that bottom up and top down approaches cannot co-exist is a fundamentally false dichotomy; one that, unfortunately, has crept into most conventional project management solutions that impose one or the other. In reality, both approaches can – and frankly need – to support each other.

At Clarizen, our progressive collaborative work management solution reflects this understanding. For example, when initially building project plans, leaders can: 

·       Build high level views of the project’s main phases and stages, and populate them with deliverables and milestones 

·       Break the project into smaller, more manageable sub-projects

·       Establish dependencies between corresponding sub-projects and milestones – which can be done one-a-time or (more commonly) concurrently by different teams

Once the plan’s high level framework is in place, project managers, functional managers, and all required other execution-level stakeholders can efficiently lay the foundation by adding specific task planning details, including execution deadlines. And during this process if the required work cannot be fulfilled in the proposed timeframe, managers are proactively notified and can collaborate and escalate accordingly.

The Way Forward

Project management is an art and a science – which means that debates in the field are both necessary and welcome. And while we’re loathe to snuff out such a colorful dispute regarding bottom up and top down approaches – since advocates on both sides are nothing if not passionate – the fact is that choosing one vs. the other isn’t just pointless: it’s counterproductive.

Project planning needs BOTH approaches, because leaders and teams require big picture and execution-level perspectives to rapidly build robust, realistic plans. Clarizen has understood this from day one, and our customers have reaped the rewards ever since.

Learn More

Learn more about Clarizen’s bottom up and top down approaches – not one vs. the other, by taking a free 30-day test drive.

Todd Valentine
Todd is a Senior Product Manager at Clarizen. Todd has experience working in innovation, product development and PMO organizations within VMware’s CTO office. He has a master's in Information Systems and an MBA from the Questrom School of Business at Boston University.