Change Management in the Construction Industry: Top Down or Bottom Up?
Achieving meaningful, lasting organisational change can be challenging and complex. This article compares the top-down and bottom-up approach to implementing change management processes. David Eveleigh uses recent examples and his specialist knowledge to provide learnings and advice on implementing change in construction.
The top-down change management approach
A top-down approach to change management is led from the top, in pursuit of a particular economic/business goal*. This is common in construction, where leaders with strong personalities make decisions and set mandates for the business.
This approach is valid and commonly used. Senior leaders often have the best experience and perspective to identify the changes 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 change management approach
In Beer and Nohria’s ‘Theory O’, a bottom-up approach is driven from within the organisation, at any level, in pursuit of improving operations or conditions within the business*. Common examples include employee feedback programmes, and changes implemented within individual departments which are not necessarily shared outwards.
Taking a bottom-up approach to change management 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. Another advantage is that you act on the actual situation, rather than an impression which may or may not reflect reality.
Conversely, bottom-up 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 it is typically on an operational level, rather than strategic.
Combining the Top-Down and Bottom-Up approach
By drawing a distinction between the scope of the two approaches, it is possible to implement a change management 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.
When Leo joined the business in 2014, he had a clear initial impression of the changes required. The impressions evolved and were added to over the following years. The top-down approach was visible through Leo’s leadership style. He revised the company structure and developed mandates across all of the different business units.
Soon after joining Leo established the My Contribution programme. This provided a platform for anyone to raise improvement suggestions from their perspective, regardless of how big or small. A dedicated team handled these suggestions. These bottom-up improvements in the efficiency of the business added up significantly over time!
If there was potential overlap or clash between the two approaches, we selected the top-down approach. However, it still provided additional information to management from 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 consider the two approaches, and how both could be implemented. You may know what’s best for the business, however, there are likely other people who also do, and whose input would improve your decision making.
There’s always a balance between action and information gathering. By empowering those with information, better decisions can be reached faster.
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