Top down or bottom up change – a false dichotomy

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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. Continue reading