Top-down Planning – Good or Bad?

I read recently an article in PM Hut blog by Keith Mathis where he categorizes top-down planning approach as a project management mistake. I didn’t agree with the author and I will try to put my arguments here hoping to start a discussion.

First point of the author is that top-down planning is old style. He says:

Top-down planning makes the assumption that upper management has the best processes and ideas to run a project smoothly.

I think the author confuses planning with management. Top-down planning means dividing the project’s work into several big parts, then each parts is divided into smaller parts and so on until we reach small enough tasks that we can estimate and assign to somebody. Nobody said that it has to be done by the upper management although I believe that the first steps in dividing the work should be made by the project manager not because she has the best ideas but because she has the best view of “the big picture”.

The second point is that top-down planning could reinforce the “Peter Principle”

The “Peter Principle” says that individuals are promoted until they reach their level of incompetence, at which time the promotions cease. As the author explains it, people are promoted until they start doing a bad job, and then they are left in that position until retirement or until they quit.

First, this “principle” is kind of corporate humor so it doesn’t happen all the time in reality. Second, before they are promoted to the level of their incompetence, the skillful project managers are at their best position and they do their job the right way. And third, even if the PM is incompetent, they have a team of trusted people on which they can rely to make the plan together.

The same argument stays about the third point of the author: top-down planning limits buy-in from the team because the project manager wouldn’t allow them to participate in the plannig process. I will repeat: planning is not managing and it is not necessary that the project manager makes the plan by herself. Top-down planning is about how to make a plan, not about who makes it.

I am not saying that top-down approach in planning is the best way to do it but definitely it is not a wrong approach by definition. Whether it is right or wrong depends mainly on the team expertise, the technical experience they have and the knowledge about the business area.

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6 Comments

  • Alec Satin says:

    Hi Mike,

    You’ve made good distinctions here. It’s easy to refer to planning and management interchangeably, often resulting in fuzzy thinking and confusion. Good management and good planning are both essential to projects that deliver.

    I don’t know Keith personally – but I do know many excellent technical managers who have been burned by both “management model of the month” and single-focused planning dictated from somewhere “up there” in the corporate structure. It’s unfortunate (but understandable) that cynicism is pretty rampant.

    As professional project managers, we have our team-building and bridge-building jobs cut out for us.

    Thanks for the thought provoking entry.

    Alec

  • Mike Ramm says:

    Hi Alec,

    Thank you for your comment! I don’t know Keith either and I understand that sometimes it’s a matter of bad luck to have not enough competent managers. But when it comes to planning we should always trust our team and make the plan together. This way it will be more accurate and we will be more motivated to fulfill it.

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  • Craig Brown says:

    Mike,

    Excellent post as usual. Agree with your distinction from top down management and have this to add;

    Top down management brings the benefit of better alignment with the business or sponsnor’s goals.

    Tht is; you start with the top level goals that are articulated in the project brief and break it down, like a WBS or functional decomposition of business units or IT systems.

    That way you get to make sure everything taht is being built aligns with the strategic goals of the project.

  • Mike Ramm says:

    Thank you Craig!

    Your comment adds considerable clarification to my point. I agree with you completely.

  • Webloyalty says:

    Craig,

    You are spot on while distinguishing the planing from management. The plan needs to be taken a shape at the top because they are ‘best informed’. If one can identify the roles of ‘planning’, ‘management’, & ‘process’ differently, things become more clear. Also, you are right on saying that the plan need not be made at the ‘top’.

    – David.

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