Top Down or Bottom Up? A Change Management perspective in the construction industry
Achieving meaningful, lasting organisational change can be challenging and complex. This article compares the top-down and bottom-up approach to implementing change. Using recent examples, David Eveleigh, Subject Matter Expert for Change and Managing Consultant at LogiKal, uses his specialist knowledge of change in the construction industry to provide learnings and advice on how best to implement change.
The top-down approach
Characterised in Beer and Nohria’s model as ‘Theory E’, a top-down approach to change is led from the top, in pursuit of a particular economic/business goal*. This is often the case in the construction industry, where leaders with strong personalities make decisions and set mandates for the rest of the business to follow.
This approach is valid and often used as it is the senior leaders who have the best experience and perspective to identify what change is required to achieve the business’ goals. It can also result in rapid, short-term change; necessary to cope with constantly evolving market requirements.
The negative impact of using a top-down approach is the lack of ownership within the rest of the business. This means that the implemented change fails to stick in the long-term. Furthermore, decision making at the top of the business relies on the quality of the information being fed to them, which is not always at a suitable level or up to date. Additionally, the top-down approach requires significant input from senior leadership, especially over the long term.
The bottom-up approach
In Beer and Nohria’s ‘Theory O’, a bottom-up approach to change, is driven from within the organisation, at any level, in pursuit of improving operations or conditions within the business*. Common examples of these are employee feedback programmes, or changes implemented within individual departments and not necessarily shared outwards.
Taking a bottom-up approach to change enables a greater number of people within the organisation to engage with the decision-making process, resulting in increased buy-in and increased likelihood of the change lasting long-term. It also reduces the need for continuous input from senior leadership. A further advantage of this approach is that the actual situation within the business is being acted upon, rather than an impression of the business which may or may not reflect reality (as with top down).
Conversely, bottom-up change initiatives often take longer to implement and are typically introspective rather than addressing external issues facing the business. There is also less control over the outcomes as the bottom-up approach is typically on an operational level, rather than strategic.
Can you do both?
By drawing a distinction between the scope of the two approaches, it is possible to implement a change programme which draws on the strengths of both approaches whilst mitigating their individual constraints. There are numerous ways that the balance between the two approaches could be cut and defined, dependent upon the specific business situation and needs.
One example of this could be to use both approaches to decision making, depending on what change needs to be implemented. For strategic and external market (business effectiveness) issues, change can be tackled from the top down. Whereas internal, operational issues (business efficiency) could be approached from the bottom up.
Balfour Beatty’s Leo Quinn was nominated for Business Leader of the Year within the 2019 Evening Standard Business Awards. His nomination comes as a result of the turnaround he has delivered within Balfour Beatty through the Build to Last programme. This programme uses both the top-down and bottom-up approach simultaneously, to deliver maximum business benefits.
Top Down. When Leo joined the business in 2014 he came with a clear initial impression of what changes needed to be made within the company. The impressions evolved and were added to over the following years. The top-down approach was clearly visible through Leo’s leadership style as the company structure was revised and mandates were developed for best working practices across the different business units.
Bottom Up. Soon after joining Leo established the My Contribution programme. This provided a platform for anyone within the business to raise a suggestion for how the business could improve from their perspective, regardless of how big or small. These suggestions were then handled by a dedicated team and provided bottom-up improvements in the efficiency of the business, which over time significantly added up!
Whenever there was potential overlap, or clash, between the two approaches, a top-down decision was made, but benefiting from the additional information provided by the bottom-up approach. Both approaches were able to individually contribute to business improvement and both delivered significant tangible results.
What this means for you
Next time you’re looking to make a change within your business consider the two approaches, and how both could be implemented. You may know what’s best for the business, however, there are likely people within the organisation who also know the business and whose input would improve your decision making.
There’s always a balance between action and information gathering so by empowering those with the information better decisions can be reached, faster.
If you are interested in discussing how best to manage change in your business, get in touch with LogiKal here.
* Beer, M.and Nohria, N.(2000) Cracking the Code of Change, Harvard Business Review, May–June, 133-141.