Designing top down and bottom up

It is not possible to design everything at once. So should you start at the top and work down or start at the bottom and work up?

Form follows function suggests that you should start at the top – what is the strategy and hence what do we need to put in place to execute the strategy? But, it is not as easy as that.

So this is what I find works. Start with strategy. Then identify the main modules of work or chunks of activity or units that will be needed to implement the strategy.

Then switch to a bottom-up approach. Choose a few of the modules or chunks that you have identified that you think will be likely to affect other parts of the design and dive down into the detail. Be prepared to get into the smallest details if you think it will help. Lutchens even designed the door knobs of the Viceroy’s palace in India.

Then use the insights you have gained from working on a part of the detail to help you reconsider the modules and put in place the connections and links.

Then, with the high-level design in place, you can delegate the design of each module to those with the appropriate level of understanding.

The approach requires the ability to shift between the higher and lower levels without loss of enthusiasm or perspective. Some people are bored by the details. Some are only happy when they are working with something tangible and practical. Some get lost in the plumbing. Some remain in an ivory tower. Good design work is about taking as much pleasure in observing the way an operative does her job as in drawing up a plan for a global manufacturing footprint.


About Andrew Campbell

Ashridge Executive Education Focus on strategy and organisation Almost retired!
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