Top-down versus bottom-up planning: a false dichotomy

We often encounter two apparent schools of thought related to program and project planning: those who are advocates of a strict top-down approach (with detailed plans expected to comply with top-down dictates), and those who advocate the dominance of bottom-up plans (things take as long as they take).  In our view, this is a false dichotomy, and to establish a plan that is both sufficiently challenging and feasible, you need to employ both, with necessary negotiations, notably with the business, to resolve issues of feasibility.

It has been shown repeatedly that the early phases of the program lifecycle (we will address the program lifecycle in the next post) have a disproportionate influence on the outcome.  The key to success is to define the program well, to build ownership and to reduce uncertainties and risks to an acceptable level before undertaking the high cost development and implementation phase.  It is only in this way that there can be confidence that the plans are adequate and that unnecessary and expensive changes can be minimized later.

The key mechanism for such planning is the Management Plan.  There are many synonyms for this, depending on the methodology you may use, including charters, PIDs, etc.  The Management Plan is essential to program (as well as project) management, forcing a full and detailed consideration of all aspects and their execution at an early stage

The purposes for creating a Management Plan (whether for a program or project) may be broken down as follows to:

  • Ensure that the Program/Project Manager thinks through the objectives, scope and means of carrying out the work, and gives early consideration to key risks and issues and their resolution/mitigation at the outset
  • Form a basis for others to review and agree these proposals, obtain their commitment and for the Program/Project Manager to obtain formal authorization to proceed
  • Provide an effective communication mechanism for new team members and other interested parties.  It is vital for communicating a ‘common vision’ to which reference can be made to understand the objectives, constraints, approach, etc.
  • Form a baseline against which the program/project can be monitored and controlled.

There is a clear inter-relationship between Program and Project Management Plans.  In practice the development of both overlaps substantially.  This is by design because it allows for top-down planning that establishes targets (at the program level) but also bottom-up planning that demonstrates feasibility and commitment to delivery (at the project level).  This overlap is explained in the diagram below.

The Program Management Plan:

  • Must lead the development of constituent Project Management Plans; it is the document which considers the overall scope and high level approach, and as such considers how it should be broken down into its component parts for detailed planning and execution
  • Defines the program organization, including leadership of projects but also program functions such as Program Office and Design Authority (business & technical architects)
  • Defines the control and reporting regimes with which each project must comply
  • Provides the Program Manager with the basis for approval from the Program Sponsor/Director.

Once the Program Plan is complete, it is taken into much greater detail as a Project Management Plan.  This Project Plan is developed once the broad scope of the project has been defined.  The Project Plan provides the basis for the Program Manager to approve the project and allows it to commence.

In subsequent blog posts we will touch on several program aspects which are addressed by the Management Plan.    

Alexander Lowry

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