Change Management: Is the Better Approach Top Down Processing or Bottom Up Processing?

CoachHub · 3 August 2022 · 5 min read

Organizational change is an all-play. From those driving the change to those executing it—and even those tangential to it—successful organizational change requires buy-in from everyone in the company. Hearts and minds must align. The question is, who is better to lead the charge? Is it the C-suite using top down processing, or is it the people on the ground using bottom up processing? Understanding the ins and outs of top down vs. bottom up processing is essential to successful change management. 

Most change management models acknowledge the need to prepare the organization for change before actually embarking on it. There is a vast difference, though, between telling someone what has to happen and involving them in the process. Those closest to the problem often have more insight into what’s happening, why and how to fix it than those far removed from it. Conversely, those closest to the problem may be so involved in the day-to-day that they don’t see the big picture or notice trouble coming down the pike. Up-periscope is often the purview of the leadership team. Row the boat falls to the rank and file. The thing is, without either one the ship sinks.

Top down processing for fast organizational change

Top down management is long on tell and compel but short on collaborate and innovate. That’s not good or bad in and of itself. Sometimes, the need for transformation is so acute that top-down management is absolutely necessary. Sudden shifts in the market, supply chain, regulatory environment or geopolitical landscape may require immediate action. A company may not have the luxury of in-depth bottom up vs. top down processing conversations when the immediate health of the business is at stake. When that is the case, a data-driven change management strategy that allows for fast decision-making and crisp execution can be the right choice. 

The key to executing the change successfully is to communicate, communicate, communicate—and to make sure the people affected have the skills and tools they need to make the change happen. At bare minimum, people need to understand:

  • What the change is
  • What’s driving it 
  • The consequences of not changing
  • How long they have to make the change
  • What they need to stop doing
  • What they need to start doing
  • What they need to keep doing

It takes a deft hand to facilitate rapid change without (overly) disrupting the business. Companies with expert project managers and an established change management discipline embedded throughout the organization fare the best. If people understand the mechanics of change, they can speed up when they have to. Leaders face less resistance to a top-down management approach when change agility has been built into the company’s culture and processes, and when trust has been established through prior successful change initiatives.  

Just because a change has been implemented doesn’t mean it will last. In fact, 84% of change initiatives fail. Top-down change management requires an intensive post-change effort, especially when the change is predicated on a need to do something different immediately. Communicate obsessively, train assiduously, and don’t skimp on tools or technology. Nothing is more frustrating to team members than feeling like they don’t have the knowledge or ability to do what is being asked of them. Once it’s over and they still have to get the work done, they’re likely to revert to the old way of doing things or gerrymander a way around new obstacles in their path. Either way, the company may find itself right back where it was.

contemplating a top down vs a bottom up strategy for change

Bottom up processing for organizational change management

Generally speaking, when your back’s not against the wall bottom up processing for change management is always better. Bottom up management creates a shared sense of ownership among employees and a vested interest in the outcome. It surfaces additional opportunities for innovation that may not even be on the radar yet. Perhaps most importantly, it ensures that the people who deal with the issue every day have a say so nothing is overlooked or misrepresented. Consider this: an IFOP study found that 74% of employees they surveyed said the changes they experienced didn’t improve anything at work, and 68% said it didn’t improve their work efficiency. Perhaps no one thought to involve them at the outset.

Participation and empowerment of personnel is essential when it comes to process innovation—in other words, moving from how things are done today to how things will be done going forward. As one study put it, “the employees who work in the process to be developed possess the important, often tacit experiential knowledge that has to be included in the knowledge creation for valid process redesign. They are also the key actors in realising these ideas, through implementation.” 

The importance of employee involvement isn’t limited to business process change. Sales teams can offer a wealth of knowledge when it comes to changes centered on the customer experience, pricing models, company reputation and product/service differentiation. Strategists and financial teams can provide essential guidance on new operating and revenue models and opportunities for diversification. Marketing teams will have insight into changes that affect branding and corporate identity. Supply chain managers can help guide the company through the real-world consequences of changes in the regulatory and geopolitical landscape that affect the movement of products, components and raw materials.  

In addition to their organizational change coaching role, HR partners are indispensable when it comes to structural changes. No one understands the people-related aspects of the business better than they do. They should be working hand in hand with change leaders on business shifts related to:

  • Mergers, acquisitions and divestitures
  • Insourcing and outsourcing
  • Restructuring and consolidation
  • Reporting structure

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The best of both worlds: An at-the-ready change management discipline

In an environment where change is constant, establishing a disciplined change management process and enabling change agility at all levels of the organization is a clear competitive differentiator. When speed is of the essence, people will understand what it takes to change an organization and will be more receptive to top down processing if the issue at hand has been strongly defined. When changes have a longer time horizon, they’ll be enthusiastic about contributing their insight and expertise because they know the leadership team will be receptive to it. Whether companies deploy top down processing or bottom up processing, people will trust that they’ll be given the information, training and tools they need to be successful during the implementation and in the “to be” state.   

Dedication to training employees on the ins and outs of change management ensures people are ready to contribute and take action when the time comes. A long-term approach to coaching for business transformation ensures that they are well-equipped to champion innovation and adapt gracefully to the disruption and volatility inherent in today’s markets.

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