C-Suite Agenda

Bottom-Up? Top-Down? Is There No Better Way to Lead Change?

Regardless of your organization’s size or sector, one thing is certain. The future is unlikely to mirror the past. To remain relevant and thrive, change will be necessary.

By the nature of their positions, leaders often maintain a fairly broad view of challenges and opportunities, trends and threats, assets and liabilities. They also have authority, providing a unique platform for driving innovation. 

But harvesting meaningful change is no easy proposition. Trapped within popular but problematic constructs, too many leaders fail to deliver. 

Bottom-Up 

One type of leader suffers from what I call Dr. Do-Little Disorder. They may understand the need for evolution, at least theoretically. But the problem with change is that you have to change things. And that is risky. Shaking up traditions triggers fierce resistance. The wrath of unhappy colleagues can be more terrifying than the change itself. Careful never to poke that dragon, the supervisor treads with caution. 

This kind of boss may be an outstanding manager. But little actual leading occurs. If anything, progress is limited to minor tinkering around the edges. 

When asked about innovation philosophy, an organic, “bottom-up” approach is endorsed. They argue meaningful change results from grassroots advocacy, the will of the people.  

Of course, most employees have no idea that innovation is their responsibility. The pervasive belief: “My job is to do my job (as described in the official description) well.” In fact, many go further, taking extraordinary measures to protect the status quo at all costs. After all, “that’s what I was hired to do.” Any alteration, no matter how small or necessary, is met with defiance. 

Without the active engagement of leadership, meaningful transformation is highly unlikely. Stubborn stasis will persist . . . until it’s too late. 

Top-Down 

A different type of leader exhibits Sumo-Einstein Syndrome. Armed with bold ideas and muscles to flex, these fearless visionaries know just what to do. Over time, any number of innovations are imposed upon the community. 

Here’s the problem. For starters, it’s unlikely the boss has all the best ideas. 

But even if she does, it turns out people don’t like being told what to do. Particularly if it’s different from “what we’ve always done.” My-way-or-the-highway, “top-down” leadership is unlikely to be received with open arms.

As a result, morale plummets. Despite progress, work becomes a miserable place. People push back. Or withdraw. Perhaps there’s a mutiny. Things can get so out of control that the leader gets fired. Or worse yet, promoted . . . (to torment other unsuspecting souls).

Here’s some advice for leaders, and it may sound counterintuitive. If you see the need for change, don’t be the idea person. That’s not the gig.  Even prophetic foresight is likely to be dismissed as a unilateral power play.

Top-down is every bit as likely as bottom-up to fail. Though short-term success may be possible, neither approach has much potential to catalyze sustainable, transformational change.

Sadly, these familiar frameworks are often the only options under consideration. Fortunately, there is a better way.

Side-Across 

Rather than becoming a passive bystander or center of gravity, the most successful change strategy embraces what I call “side-across” leadership. Doing so opens the door to proactive exploration without alienating the troops. 

Like a football coach, authority figures actively guide communities from the sidelines. From this parallel placement, they are optimally positioned to build the culture, set the narrative, and shape the process—without ever running the ball. Molding the path to success with intentionality, community members are then charged to become champion problem-solvers and agents of change. 

  1. Build the Culture
    Side-across leaders cultivate a nimble atmosphere that celebrates curiosity, risk-taking, and collaboration. To that end, environments are curated with great intention.

    One way to do this involves creating a culture statement. The “10 Family Core Values” by shoe retailer Zappos are instructive. Their list includes: (2) embrace and drive change, (4) be adventurous, creative, and open-minded, and (7) build a positive team and family spirit. More than mere words, these cultural priorities are explained in a mandatory “Oath of Employment” and emphasized routinely.

    Desirable behaviors can be incentivized through a variety of methods: annual reviews, financial perks, public celebration, pats on the back. To cultivate safe environments, prioritize opt-in over forced-upon systems that reward rather than punish.

  2. Set the Narrative
    Without dictating what to think, side-across leaders suggest what people might think about.  Simply asking a question may be all it takes to highlight an issue.

    # How might we expand our audience tenfold?
    # What if we reimagined the user experience?
    # Given the realities of new technology, how should we adjust our business model?

    Another powerful strategy involves hosting book clubs. Whether concerned with diversity, strategic planning, or corporate responsibility, invite employees to read about relevant topics. While author viewpoints don’t necessarily reflect those of leadership, they offer a launchpad for consideration and conversation.

  3. Shape the Process
    Side-across leaders design empowering experiences. A compelling way to catalyze change is by organizing what I call “innovation games.” These carefully architected processes challenge one or more teams to confront important, complex problems while imagining extraordinary, actionable solutions. 

Though results are unknown when a game begins, the best examples almost guarantee powerhouse proposals. Better yet, they build organizational pride and buy-in. 

Effective leaders are frequently instrumental in planning the structure. After carefully defining a challenge statement and parameters of play, determine what questions will be asked, in which order, for how long.

But come time to ideate, leaders maintain a neutral position. Though welcome to facilitate, they invite others to do the problem-solving.

If you’ve been called to innovate the future, avoid common leadership traps. Resist the urge to impose change or wait for a miracle. Instead, entrust “creative geniuses” from across your organization. 

Inspire change by stepping to the side.


Written by David Cutler.
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David Cutler
David Cutler, author of THE GAME OF INNOVATION: Conquer Challenges | Level Up Your Team | Play to Win, is founder and CEO of The Puzzler Company, a Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina where he teaches innovation and entrepreneurship, and an award-winning, multi-genre musician and Yamaha Master Educator.


David Cutler is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.