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Bottom-up vs. top-down project management 101

DJ Waldow 6 min read
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When it comes to projects, there are two schools of thought on how to manage: Bottom-up vs. Top-down. Sounds confusing, right?

Well, that’s what we’re here for! In the next few minutes, we’ll go through these two approaches and highlight a tool that will make nailing them easier, starting with the top-down approach.

What is the top-down model?

The top-down approach to project management means that you start with the final deliverable (project goal) and break it down into smaller, more manageable tasks. These tasks can be further broken down into subtasks — great details — and then assigned to individual teams and/or team members within that team.

Example: You need to update the FAQ section on your website. This is a task your team has completed in the past. The scope is clear, the timeline defined, the subtasks straightforward. A perfect time for a simple, top-down approach.

Top-down tends to be more autocratic (we are telling you what to do, now go do it).

What is the bottom-up approach to a project?

The bottom-up approach to project management means that you begin with brainstorming possible solutions to meet that final deliverable. In other words, you know what the project goal is, but are not sure (yet) how to get there. A bottom-up approach involves all members of the team working together to determine the necessary tasks to reach that final end product.

Example: You are embarking on an entirely new product based on feedback from your customers. You need input from the entire team as this is a process you’ve never been through before. A bottom-up approach works best in this situation.

Bottom-up tends to be more democratic (we are not sure how to do it, but as a team, we’ll figure it out).

In this blog post, we’ll review different styles of management/leadership, discuss the pros and cons of top-down vs. bottom-up for project management, and share how can help navigate whatever approach you choose!

What are top-down/bottom-up leadership styles?

When it comes to management and leadership styles, there are also two different approaches. Again, surprise surprise, top-down vs. bottom-up.

At, we are strong advocates for a top-down management and leadership approach. In fact, leading through a bottom-up approach is one of the 5 pitfalls first-time (and sometimes more experienced) managers tend to make.

We suggest including a real-time “stand-up” meeting as one of a manager’s daily tasks. These quick, specific meetings provide a high-level update on the plan, checking in with each team member to ensure they are on track to accomplishing their goals — understanding roadblocks, what’s important, and what’s not needed to meet the end goal.

If one approaches leading through a bottom-up style, it becomes muddy real quick. It’s challenging to understand where a project stands by just looking at task completion status — you are missing the data that supports that specific task.

Managing from the bottom up is like knowing the completion of a mountain climb by counting the steps you’ve made towards the top — the chances you’ve made the right assumptions for this count is like winning the lottery. Counting visible checkpoints is better and the only thing you really need.

Generally speaking, this top-down approach to leadership works well in designers and software development as a “reverse product engineering” style means a better final product.

When it comes to project management, which is better: top-down or bottom-up?

A top-down approach to project management tends to work better when there is a clear direction and an overall understanding of how a project fits into the larger goals of the organization. With repeatable projects — projects teams have successfully completed before — a top-down approach often makes the most sense as a process has already been established.

A good project manager is able to quickly identify the big-picture tasks, while the team focuses on the day-to-day deliverables.

Possible downside: Some of the finer project details may be overlooked.

A bottom-up approach to project management tends to work better for brand new projects, ones where your team does not have prior experience. This approach means that teams can begin to brainstorm and identify unknown risks.

Using this approach means more of the team will have input into the process — a freeflow of ideas and information is created. This, in turn, often means there will be more “out of the box” type thinking as individuals think through various solutions to the task(s) at hand.

Typically, a bottom-up approach means there are more details (and maybe even more tasks).

Possible downside: Time-consuming and resource-heavy.

When it comes to estimating task duration, a critical component to any project plan, managers often use both a bottom-up and a top-down approach:

  • Bottom-up estimating approach: Allows teams to estimate how long each sub-task will take. This time then rolls up into an overall time-to-project-completion estimate.
  • Top-down estimating approach: Starting with an estimate of how long the entire project will take, then breaking it down into the various tasks.

Leveraging both a bottom-up and top-down approach concurrently ensures a more accurate overall time estimate.

How helps support a bottom-up approach to project management

An outcome of a bottom-up approach to project management is a roadmap.

Here at, we pride ourselves on helping teams plan and visualize their product roadmap, so they can reach every milestone.

Our Work OS means teams can create customizable workflows, see who’s working on what, assign teammates to new tasks, set due dates, and prioritize it all with color-coded labels.


Agile project roadmap in monday UI

At, a bottom-up approach to project management means individuals manage their own tasks and other assignments on boards — for all stakeholders to see, anywhere, anytime.

The easiest way to dive into is to start with one of our (many!) fully-customizable project templates.

From there, tweak your board to make it work best for your specific project.

Once your project roadmap is created — with a bottom-up approach, including input from all stakeholders — it’s time to assign tasks and track progress.

Keep all team members “in the know” by creating automation recipes (as we call them), a pre-defined combination of triggers (an event you choose that sets the automation into motion), and actions (what occurs as a result of that trigger).

Ultimately, you’ll need to consider your team’s unique needs to settle the bottom-up vs. top-down debate—when you’re ready to start the planning process, give a try.

DJ is a freelance writer specializing in all things words. He's a father of 4 (including twins), husband to one, and an alum of the University of Michigan. DJ is a self-proclaimed giphy master and #HashtagAddict.

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