Top Down vs Bottom Up Thinking

There is a great article on Mark Suster’s blog, Both Sides of the Table, that talks about the differences between “top down” and “bottom up” thinking. From the article:

The difference is in formulating hypothesis then testing conclusions / data vs. assembling data and finding patterns. I know it might sound a bit esoteric so let me explain:

I started my career as a programmer. We did big, boring but necessary implementations for large companies. I started by doing billing systems. In billing we literally started thinking about all of the types of bills that would be generated for customers: full payment, partial payment, split payment, senior discount, student discount, level pay plan, etc. We then made groupings of the common features of each piece of logic so we could figure out what “shared services” we could build so that we could have reusable code. This is bottom-up planning. It is useful in many situations and was useful to me in this situation…

…But I approach problems in a different way now. I start with answers and structure what I think the organization of the problem is. I then try out my solutions by interviewing people to “prove or disprove” my conclusions. I’m never right the first time so I spend time adjusting my frameworks. And if data is required then I apply actual data to my conclusions. The process is bankrupt if you simple tweak the data to support your hypotheses.

Mark Suster, Both Sides of the Table

In many respects this is similar to how a scientist thinks: observe, formulate a hypothesis, design an experiment to test that hypothesis, then iterate based upon results. In both cases, both the business leader and the scientist have intuition built from experience that can quickly help them formulate a reasonable hypothesis without having to start from scratch.

Of course there are some instances where you may not have enough intuition to form a good hypothesis. In these cases you can look to the data. But a better place to start is to ask others with more experience in the space. They may not be as skilled as you as structuring a clean hypothesis. But by asking thoughtful questions you can likely extract the information you need to quickly formulate one of your own.

I find this a useful construct to keep in mind.