Tuesday, March 15, 2016

bottom-up vs. top-down

Last week I wrote about systems of autonomous components, also dubbed as bees vs. the bee hive. In management, there is the somewhat related concept of bottom-up vs. top-down management.

Bottom-up used to be popular in engineering companies. Engineers work in small groups that push beyond the bleeding edge of technology and invent new product concepts. As the product evolves, more people are recruited and the product is polished by UX experts, manufacturability experts, marketing and sales teams, etc.

In a top-down company, the leader of the company is an expert visionary who has a new technology idea. A team of second level executives is assembled, which repeats the process for the next level, etc., down to the worker bees who develop the product. This was the basis of the utopian concept described in Tommaso Campanella's Città del Sole.

Der Schulmeister und seine Schüler

The preference for one paradigm or the other oscillates with time. Both are viable. Things only go wrong when a mediocre person becomes the head honcho of a bottom-up company and transforms it to top-down. In a bottom-up company, the management's role is mostly to take out of the way the obstacles that slow down the engineers. Typically their nature is more that of a facilitating person than that of a leader.

When the polarity of a company is switched from bottom-up to top-down, the management layers typically fail. With a mediocre person at the top, the company is doomed. It can take decades, but in the end, there is no escape from the spiral of death.