March 2009 - Top Down vs Bottom Up Thinking

This month while talking to a student during a break, we agreed that many businesses still have issues communicating information through the management levels of the enterprise. This issue was particularly focused on IT and projects that fail due to this breakdown. As I was teaching a Business Analyst class at the time, my thoughts focused on what has been a decades old problem. Now, I am not an Organizational Psychologist, but it seems to me that a key issue is how we think and process information.To put it plainly, Senior Management tends to be Top/Down thinkers, while many in IT are Bottom/Up thinkers. While many employees in management roles can close their eyes and see the Big Picture, those in IT look at them and ask why they get to take a nap during working hours. Yet we bottom up thinkers tend to focus on all the details we know are required to make the vision real. At meetings management either rolls their eyes, or the eyes get glassy as they listen to us and wonder how can these people not understand what it is they are being asked to build. They see us like hamsters running on a wheel going nowhere, speaking in tongues, and they groan when they need us to climb back on the wheel.

It is not surprising that we fail in our communications. I, as you know from previous articles, am dismayed at how little some technical people want to know about the project they are part of. During every project, critical decisions must be made. When we make a critical decision without a vision on the finished product we many times make the wrong decision. I have seen many attempts by management to communicate vision down to their employees. Many time I hear and watch a presentation and wonder what they are talking about as the vision is too vague for my bottom up style. I am unable to reach the point where I can see the vision being realized. When this happens my mind wanders to more practical matters and the lines of communication stop.

Some stereotypical Sales people prey on customers by creating wonderful visions of what the future holds when you purchase their product. Many customers have been disappointed by these emotional purchases as they bought the goods, and never reaped the benefits. I have a good example from about 10 years ago. I was researching Product Configuration software for my companies CRM initiative. After going to the industry leading vendor I set up meetings to investigate the product. As a matter of course, I asked for references.

I don't know if it is just me, but I usually expect to hear a good story from a reference. My salesman must of thought I would never check as only 1 of the 3 references ever implemented any aspect of the product solution (a failure in his CRM solution). Working with someone else in my company we made appointments to visit the vendor reference companies as we were very interested in the product. After traveling several hours from New York to Denver we entered the office of the reference, the head of this companies IT department.

It was a mid-sized company in an executive office space, they manufactured very high tech circuit boards. Our host looked over worked, his desk filled with files and his face turned sad as he explained to us that while he was away over the last Christmas and New Year's holiday, the Product Configuration vendor sold senior management on the vision of defect free orders and had them sign a contract.

This poor Bottom/Up Thinker found new software and contracts worth well over half a million dollars on his desk. Needless to say 9 months later when we visited, the software was returned back to the box, collecting dust, as they were unable to build the model needed to make the software of any value to them.

Having reviewed the product in great detail, we met with our management to explain the time and resources needed to make their vision for our company happen, and together we agreed that our chance of success would be minimal and we scrapped the project. The project needed Object Oriented Modeling skills combined with an understanding of our products and their model based breakdown. Basically we needed very special skills already in great demand within the company combined with OO skills that did not at the time exist in the company. What we needed was a Top/Down, Bottom/Up Thinker.

Our management was able to understand this hard to find requirement because in my final presentation to them, my teammate did the talking as his track record went back much further with the management team then mine did, and while I ramble and speak in tongues, he was able to describe the problem with terminology our management team understood. It was my first time meeting with this team and I was impressed and felt we had succeeded even though we shelved the project.

What we were able to do was to integrate the Top level thinking of our management with the bottom level details needed to realize the vision. We worked well in coming up with a decision to avoid the problems non-integrated thinking companies experienced. My teammate was the glue between the technology and management teams.

In order to make this happen my partner and I had to understand what our management team was trying to do. We extended their thinking by not just looking at the technology to configure a product, but also the technology needed to deal with re-orders based on a current configuration and change order management issues. When we put this on the table, management understood that their vision had to be expanded if they were going to get the desired results (Defect free orders).

The communication between management and the technical team grew over time based on mutual trust and a willingness of both parties to listen to each other. Through smaller projects like a Data Warehouse prototype that management did not even imagine was possible, they were willing to spend more time (and money) integrating Top/Down and Bottom/Up thinking.

When I felt it was time to leave the company, I was part of a team that integrated IT and Operations Management. We built small teams that went on to work on other projects where management supported the team and felt confidence in its members. As a result, getting promotions and raises for key team members was supported by senior management creating valued loyalty from our employees.

It was a Win/Win situation and for me, a good experience working with Top/Down Thinkers. I believe that CRM is a vision based initiative for many organizations. Failures in integrating the vision with a practical first implementation and a plan for the future combined with communications breakdowns amongst management and implementation teams is a key factor in project failures.

Always remember that Customer Relationship Management starts with good Internal Relationship Management. And my final recommendation, why not use the CRM product you purchased to improve the Internal Relationship Management that needs to occur to make the vision real.

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