Top Down and Bottom Up Thinking

A lone tree next to a lake, with a clear reflection of the tree in the water.

Top Down and Bottom Up Thinking

Have you ever thought that there could be friction in a team where most of the team are top down thinkers (start with the bigger picture and drill down to the detail) and a few are either bottom up thinkers (build the bigger picture from details) or do a bit of both? Would you expect that those who are in the minority would be frustrated because they are not listened to because the majority does not understand what they are trying to say and shouts them down?

Cognitive Diversity Training

We recently delivered our first interactive cognitive diversity training. The theory behind this is that everyone is cognitively diverse and that there is no such thing as ‘neurotypical’. We believe the best way to understand neurodiverse conditions is to relate them to ‘normal’ cognitive diversity. If cognitive diversity is seen as normal and if members of a team understand each other’s cognitive diversity, then it could be easier to include and appreciate those with more ‘extreme’ cognitive diversity (that is those who would qualify for a diagnosis of a neurodiverse condition).

Note that this approach also includes those who may qualify for a diagnosis, but who are not interested in pursuing a diagnosis because they see no value in a diagnosis or don’t accept there is a problem.

This new interactive cognitive diversity training confirmed that our theory is correct: there was significant cognitive diversity within the group. Some of this cognitive diversity was causing friction and frustration.

We asked a question:

Do you prefer to A. Start with the bigger picture and drill down to the detail? B. Start with the detail and build the bigger picture? C. A bit of both

Out of a group of 11 participants, eight decided they were top down thinkers, one decided they were a bottom up thinker and two thought they did a bit of both. It was the discussion that followed that was very telling.

Both the bottom up thinker and the two who do both top down and bottom up thinking expressed frustration in getting their views heard. They tended to be shouted down or ignored by the majority who are top down thinkers. It has to be said that the top down thinkers had no idea that they were ignoring views that stem from people who think differently.

Even in such a small group, we found an area where taking the time to listen to different points of view and understand where different people are coming from could improve team decision making and prevent ‘group think’.

Problem Solving as a Search Space

Why would such a simple thing as the difference in whether someone is a top down thinker, or a bottom up thinker, or both make such a difference? All are perfectly valid ways of thinking. None of the options make you more intelligent than the other options.

The answer is in terms of a search space. If there is more than one answer to a problem, top down, and bottom up algorithms will both find a solution. But it will generally be a different solution. Algorithms that combine top down and bottom up search are more likely (but not guaranteed) to find an optimal solution.

When there are many different possible options and many different factors, it is impossible to search the whole search space and you need to try to find a solution by deciding on which options to discard. Strategic thinkers tend to think in terms of the bigger picture. Many of them do not like detail (that is for those below them to implement). But by deliberately ignoring detail, they potentially miss the pitfalls of their strategy - and frustrate those below them who do like detail and who can see the pitfalls very clearly.

From this discussion, it might appear that you should therefore put those who approach problems from both the bigger picture and detail in charge. But this won’t work either because they do part of each method and therefore may discard some important detail or not think about an important bigger picture option.

This is why it is so important to ensure that everyone is heard. Those who think differently, will see things from a different perspective. They may well see pitfalls you have missed or be able to improve on the ‘consensus’ solution. This can be invaluable for finding optimal solutions.

Different ways of thinking create a well rounded picture

In order to create an environment that is completely inclusive and diverse we should always value everyone’s opinions. Going with the majority view is often not the best option: everyone’s views should be considered.

Consider a Project Team working on a new project with 2 Project Managers. One project manager may just want to understand the outcome and how to achieve the end goal in the simplest, quickest and most cost-effective way possible. The second may want to start by considering all the possible risks, dependencies and work through all the finer detail - these two ways may lead to different solutions and both are worth listening to. The ‘quick and dirty’ solution may end up being the least cost effective in the long run but you cannot know without looking at the details (or implementing it and finding out the hard way). The best solution will likely be achieved by combining the two approaches.

This difference is important in learning. Top down thinkers like to get the bigger picture first and then fit the detail to the bigger picture. Bottom up thinkers like to gather the detail and build it into the bigger picture. The instructions sometimes given for essays of tell ‘em what you are going to tell ‘em (the introduction), then tell ‘em (the body of the content) then tell ‘em what you told ‘em (the conclusion) actually caters for both top down and bottom up thinking.

Top down thinkers tend to be poor at detail, whereas bottom up thinkers tend to be very good at detail. Those who do both tend to be good problem solving because they can see the detail and the bigger picture both at the same time. We find that big picture thinkers who don’t like the detail can find it difficult to communicate with both bottom up thinkers and those who do a bit of both because they both like detail. Communication between the different groups can only be improved if there is a better education of these different ways of thinking, because generally top down thinkers don’t realise they are ignoring important detail. Once the communication issues have been recognised, it is not difficult to solve them.

If you are interested in our new interactive cognitive diversity training, please contact us.