on False Dichotomies

by Evan Leybourn, October 27, 2019


During the last decade, I have enjoyed many arguments relating to the various pros and cons of top-down vs bottom-up. And honestly, it doesn't matter what is going top-down or bottom-up; transformation, communication, strategy, etc. I posit that this is, in fact, a false dichotomy.

Let's start with top-down for a moment.

The premise of top-down is that the will of business leadership exerts an undeniable influence on those below; that the organisation will follow a change if the leadership buys into it. In this scenario, those who are trying to influence an organisation to change want to use its leaders as a catalyst for the rest of the organisation. In many ways, this is a seductively simple approach. Change ten people and you change everyone. Of course, if you fail to change the top leader (or the top leader quits) the whole house of cards crumbles.

Ask yourself: is this true change? What happens when the leaders resign? Do they provide effective support as the rest of the organisation transforms? Are they willing to invest the time it takes for the change to become self-sustaining?

Let's look at the alternative for a moment; bottom-up.

The premise of bottom-up is that a critical mass, or groundswell, of change is more democratic and likely to be sustainable; the organisation will follow a change if the teams take it upon themselves to instigate it. In this scenario, those who are trying to influence an organisation to change want to use its teams as a catalyst to change processes, systems, measurements, and structure. While harder to execute, this approach does put the individual's decision rights at the heart of the change - a key principle to business agility. But it relies on a viral effect to be successful. That other teams will see the change and adopt it over their existing practices, processes, and values.

Again, ask yourself... Is it true change? Can the teams have an impact on business strategy or governance processes? Do the teams have enough information to make those decisions? Is there a glass ceiling to the change? Are the organisation's measures and KPIs supportive of such a change (or are people willing to risk their bonuses on the inevitable short-term productivity loss)? Can management override teams autonomy and demand things return to the status quo?

So why is this a false dichotomy?

Very simply, because it's the wrong metaphor entirely. I want you to imagine a cup of tea. You don't add tea leaves to the top or bottom of a glass and expect to make tea. Tea infuses. Tea saturates. Tea brews. With only a small amount of heat, a small amount of motion, and a small amount of time, the tea leaves spread and change every drop of water into tea. 

The same is true of organisational transformation. Those small pockets of influence need to be everywhere; stirring things up, moving about, and influencing without imposing. Someone in HR, a team in technology, maybe the CFO - change agents across the organisation, loosely coupled in action but tightly aligned in purpose.

So stop arguing that change should be top-down or bottom-up. Change everything.

-Evan Leybourn, 27 October 2019