Top down or bottom up change – a false dichotomy

I recently helped organise a conference about “transformational change”.  The discussion ranged widely but two questions that came up have stayed with me. The first concerns the degree to which change can be “managed” and the second, whether change should be managed “top down” or “bottom up”.  I’d like to reflect a little on those questions, starting with the second.

The view that change should be managed bottom up rather than top down is popular at the moment and seemed to be favoured in remarks made at the conference. People are suspicious of top down approaches.  They seem, perhaps, old-fashioned, hierarchical, patronising.  Bottom up approaches seem more democratic, more egalitarian, more respectful of the knowledge of the people who “do the work”.  They may also be held to be more effective because change that people choose is more likely to “stick” than change that has been imposed.

I’m not so sure.  I think we are dealing with a false dichotomy here.  I think we have no choice, in fact, but to embrace elements of both top down and bottom up approaches if we want to see significant, lasting and appropriate change.

In the first place, we might distinguish between types of change.  If we mean the improvement of operational processes then I fully agree that there is no need for senior management to be involved and that managers should empower those with the direct knowledge of the issues (staff at the “frontline”) to handle them routinely.  But our conversation at the conference was about “transformational change” which I take to mean a much more significant, perhaps even fundamental, change in what the organisation is doing to respond to the changing world. Here the picture is more complicated.

When it comes to transformational change do those who “do the work” really have the information or the vantage point or the resources from which they can be expected to recognise the need for change and then to take the lead on it?  Can organisations really wait around for an act of spontaneous or unplanned change to break out?  But, it might be protested, this is not what we mean by bottom up change.  Bottom up change is about involving staff in decision-making about change, not expecting them to lead it.  But if that is so, the term is somewhat misleading because this is still change orchestrated and managed – and, in the end, authorised, or not – by senior decision-makers, or, at least, through formal organisational decision-making processes.  In other words, it is still essentially top down.

I suggest it would be better to think of change as something in in which everyone should be involved and in a way which recognises the particular contribution which the various parties might be expected to make.  Let’s suppose we are talking about a company for a moment.  What might an account of the parties and contributions look like?

Stakeholder Type of “stake” Contribution Risk
Shareholders Legal/financial Focus on bottom-line Short-termism
Senior management Responsibility Overview/big picture Covering their backs
Employees Dependency Operational knowledge Change threatens
Customers Choice Market knowledge May not know what they want


You may not agree with these characterisations and they are rather roughly put together.  My point is that if you want change that makes the right difference and can be sustained then you need to hear from all of these stakeholders and enable them to make the contribution only they can make and, at the same time, avoid the risk that the process is skewed by being overly influenced by one of the parties. But the process is likely to remain top down in a sense because only those in management roles can create and authorise the process that enables all this to happen.  At the same time, the role of those actively “managing change” must be to ensure that the process is as inclusive and genuinely participatory as possible.  This is the prime responsibility, perhaps, of those in leadership roles – to create the environment in which these positive processes can happen.

All this leaves me with the question of whether change can be managed.  As the foregoing suggests I think change can and must be managed in the sense that the processes designed to create positive change can and should be managed.  But if the question really means, can we prescribe outcomes, then the answer must be no.  In the first place, a process that involves all the parties that need to be involved only works if everybody’s voice is really heard and if the process allows unanticipated insights to emerge – if it does not, management might as well just decide. No, as soon as you embark on the process things will happen that you did not expect and may not welcome and the likelihood of this happening will only increase as planning turns to implementation and the concept captured in the plan interacts with reality.

The conference also contained discussion of the degree to which we live in times in which change in the world is highly disruptive of our norms and expectations. This adds a further limitation to the confidence with which we can design or predict outcomes.  It means that to change is to sacrifice control and to take a risk. It is to enter into a process in which one’s predictions will be probabilistic rather than certain.  But what’s the alternative? Change will happen whether we will it or not. The only real question is will we do what we can to change in a way that maximises the likelihood that we can continue to thrive and grow in new circumstances.

To my mind it involves a degree of trust which is deeply challenging for those that need (or think they need) to be in control.  When I start to work with clients it is in the nature of the situation that there is a great deal that we do not know.  We proceed in the conviction that if you get the right people involved, gather the right data and design the right process, the right outcome will emerge.  You then have to trust the process, and accept that it will take all the people involved on a journey of discovery.  It will take you to the right place, but that may not be (or not exactly) the place that you expected.

A version of this blog also appears on the Susanna Wesley Foundation website in a thread about the annual conference.  That version of the blog makes more explicit reference to the theme of change in the context of the church.   

See SWF version here

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