Top-Down vs Bottom-Up Org Structures

There’s a common theme amongst modern organizations: They tend to place their most important employees at the bottom of their structures and org charts.

The people who keep the cogs turning—the shelf stackers, the customer service representatives, the warehouse workers—all sit at the bottom despite them often having the most knowledge about and deepest insight into the customer and their needs. This is known as “top-down” management and it is by far the most popular organizational structure.

When it comes to choosing a management style, however, there are many things to consider. What industry is the organization operating in? Who are its customers? What’s its culture like? What project management tools does it use? Are they collaborative or planning based? And so on.

Despite what many may be led to believe, a top-down structure isn’t always the best one. In fact, many organizations, start-ups especially, are flipping this structure on its head and are instead opting for a bottom-up structure and style of management.

The Top-Down Org Structure

We’re not saying that the top-down structure is without merit; that simply isn’t true. It has helped many of today’s most successful organizations thrive, taking the form of a typical hierarchical structure with a CEO at the top who sets the course for the entire company. This CEO’s leadership and influence are then carried throughout the organization via a succession of C-level executives, directors, middle management, supervisors and, finally, employees.

In a hierarchical structure, everything is determined by upper management and is passed down the chain of command. Each rung on the ladder is responsible for carrying out the will of the rung above it, with little room for comment or criticism. While middle management may sometimes be involved in the decision-making process depending on the organization’s size, this usually rests with C-level executives.

The biggest advantage of top-down management is that one person (or a small group of people) sets clear goals and expectations and they are entirely responsible for it. Ultimately, messages are not diluted by multiple voices and this enables employees to focus more on their tasks rather than the decision-making process.

However, top-down management requires a very strong leader and, unfortunately, top-down organizations don’t always end up with one. Without a powerful personality in charge, the top-down organization can veer from careful leadership to something more dictatorial, sinking employee morale and leading to inefficiency—indeed, this is the top-down structure’s greatest vice.

The Bottom-Up Org Structure

“Two heads are better than one,” or so the saying goes. But what about tens of heads? Or hundreds? Or thousands? This is essentially the bottom-up structure where the whole organization participates in the process of leadership and decision-making. It is a collaborative management approach that gives regular, talented employees from within the ranks a voice and a say in how the organization is led, the direction it is going in, and what its priorities are. In short, bottom-up management recognizes and uses the unique perspective at “frontline” employees, without whom the organization could not function.

In bottom-up structures, teams tend to be more autonomous and are put together based on skills and experiences. Managers put a lot more trust in these teams which are largely self-directed and decide on the best way to accomplish their tasks and goals, rather than having it dictated to them by a figurehead sitting at the top of the pile.

This structure’s biggest advantage is its inherent ability to raise morale, retain talent, and get the most out of employees. That is because those employees who sit lower down on the traditional corporate ladder are the ones keeping the wheels in motion. They are the ones with the specialist knowledge and the closest ties with the customers. By fostering their talent and giving them the say in how things run, it is possible to gain a competitive edge which can improve business processes over time.

“Too many cooks spoil the broth,” is another saying that applies here, unfortunately. The largest and obvious downside to having lots of people involved in decision-making is a loss of agility and the chasing of ideas that are more likely to end up as costly dead ends. Furthermore, an inherent challenge in bottom-up organizations is that of ego—everyone is trying to be heard and this can lead to some people being influenced wrongly by their own self-interest rather than by what’s best for the company.

Choosing Your Structure

The top-down and bottom-up models are just two examples of the many organizational and org chart structures that businesses can adopt, neither of which are guaranteed to be the right choice for you.

While it is difficult to say which is the “best” or which ones are better than which—all structures have their merits and demerits, after all—we are seeing a trend where more and more businesses are replacing the old fashioned top-down structure for ones more liberal and in line with the modern organization.

Using Organimi, however, you can visualize the different structures for yourself and in the context of your own organization by building powerful, dynamic org charts with its drag-and-drop interface.

Jump into Organimi and try it out for yourself, completely free with a free trial.