The idea of managing your business from the bottom up might
sound strange, but it’s actually a proven concept that has benefited many
different businesses around the world.
Bottom-up management is an inversion of the traditional management pyramid. Instead of leadership at the top pushing goals and tasks on staff who then execute on them, a bottom-up approach involves team members at every level in the management process.
At first glance it seems counter-intuitive; a more “autocratic” approach certainly seems like it would get more done and faster with a single, clear vision driven from the top. But it’s an approach that can be far too easily undermined by weak middle management leadership. It can also be the reason for slow, complicated processes that can block progress and stifle innovation – and nobody wants that.
When management involves team members, more people contribute their insights around the direction the company takes and how it is run on a day to day basis. And when staff are allowed to set their own goals and objectives, they are more invested in the outcome than if they were simply told what to do.
Most managers reading this are probably staring in horror at
their screen right now, but bear with us, this is definitely an idea worth
Companies that have used bottom-up
If this idea was truly terrible, it would have not found
traction in some of the biggest organisations around the world. Companies
like The New York Times, Sony, Ernst & Young and IBM have
implemented at least some aspects of the bottom-up management style inside their
Each of these businesses have implemented their own methods of
including employees at all levels of the decision-making process, leading to fantastic
results – not just financially, but culturally as well.
Companies that consult or create content rely quite heavily
on their employees hunting work on their own, so the bottom-up approach that
gives those workers a fair degree of autonomy works very well.
Studies have shown that a bottom-up management style has a
good number of positive benefits for staff and organisations alike.
Workers within companies that are led this way report higher
levels of collaboration, good staff morale overall, a constant stream of useful
insights, teams that feel empowered, discovering hidden talents in colleagues,
and seeing processes being streamlined.
Taken together, it’s easy to see that work environments with these characteristics foster innovation to a far larger extent than more regimented ones. Under such conditions, being agile and responsive to changing business conditions comes far easier to staff. It allows them to adapt quickly and be flexible when necessary.
By involving staff in management and actively asking them to supply ideas that can be hammered into new solutions, organisations are encouraging the kind of innovation that will keep them going.
Because when there are no ideas, there is no innovation, and without innovation businesses stagnate and eventually fail. A steady supply of ideas from interested, engaged staff therefore offers a large advantage over other organisations that don’t pursue ideas that way.
As with most things in life, there are some disadvantages to
this approach as well. There is always the risk that without careful process
management, decision-making structures could be co-opted by groupthink, and
more ambitious staff can drown out the voices of their colleagues in pursuit of
their own agendas.
This is where upper management needs to step in and
re-evaluate whether the processes in place can still get the job done, and if
not, to change them. Managers can provide guidance in such situations, refining
staff input and making it clear that teamwork and collaboration are the desired
methods for achieving outcomes.
Here, evaluating how staff are remunerated, what their bonuses
are based on, and what their promotion criteria are, can be the key to ensuring
that staff follow bottom-up principles in a more natural, organic manner.
If you like the idea, but you’re not sure how to get started
implementing a bottom-up management structure, the first step is quite simple: start
conversations with staff, encourage the sharing of ideas, and find a way to
Bottom-up won’t work in every business environment, and we’re certainly not advocating that everyone changes their management style to this, but it’s certainly an idea that bears further investigation.