Managing Up, Down, and Sideways by Breandán Knowlton

digital-pm-summit-2013At the Digital PM Summit this year, I had the pleasure of sitting in a “conversation” session with a bunch of smart folks talking about “Managing Quality In Development Teams”. I could also tell one of the contributors in the corner really knew his stuff and had come from an interesting background. Little did I know, I was sitting in his session the next day titled “Managing Up, Down, and Sideways”.

Breandán Knowlton presented a unique combination of concepts that I’ve taken home to the team (and to heart) when approaching conflicts (or really, any dialogs) with our interactive projects and clients.

I’m sure most folks have heard about “managing up”, or put simply, doing the things that will make both you and your boss (or client) happy. Pro-actively providing status updates before they ask for them, finding what their goals are and aligning your own to meet theirs, finding their values and cater your approaches to those. This all makes sense when applied smartly and is something I know I could think about more often when working with clients and stakeholders.

Knowlton’s talk on “Managing Up, Down, and Sideways” put a kind of spin on this and introduced a theory of four relational models used “to generate, interpret, coordinate, contest, plan, remember, evaluate, and think about most aspects of most social interaction in all societies.” If it’s good enough for all societies, its probably good enough (and applicable) to leading successful projects, no matter the size or shape.

I’ll summarize the four elementary models:

  1. Communal Sharing: you operate with common respect or values, love for the project or process, take collective responsibility towards success, etc.
  2. Authority Ranking: respect is geared more towards hierarchy and class structure, prestige or superiority exist here.
  3. Equality Matching: there is an unbalance perhaps in skills or knowledge and work to share, process exists to keep balance of opinions or efforts, respect may be more towards rules and regulations.
  4. Market Pricing: standards around cost-benefit come into play, efficiency and effectiveness may be measured, those measurements or ratios are viewed with social meaning.

Thinking about these models and how they can apply to project management should become clear. From here, Knowlton had us all run through an exercise:

  • Think about a situation (a project) and then a conflict. From your own perception, what was your priority, what were you thinking about, talking about, experiencing, etc. (and did one of these social models apply to your thinking)?
  • From others’ perspectives, what were their priorities and perspectives, (and what model may have applied to them)?
  • Once you came to a resolution (it may or may not have been positive), what was the result, did you end up appealing to the same model, or did you find yourself (in hindsight) and your stakeholder(s) applying different models to the situation?

I thought about a project where we were building a complex network of applications and websites that all had to interoperate for a very large internet company. The project was to span nearly a year, had many requirements, plenty of details to review and keep track of, and we were nearing a point of getting final user acceptance and testing completed.

  • From my perspective, at this time (maybe 10 months in), a new stakeholder with new priorities was introduced into the project (as a newly hired senior executive). Some newly stated project priorities from that stakeholder meant the work to date would need to be re-evaluated and substantial new efforts (costs, time) would be required.

  • From their perspective, as an executive responsible for budgets, priorities, etc. this was a big project that didn’t meet obvious unstated goals, it had become more complex than needed to solve some immediate-term goals, and was at risk of not being a meaningful contribution to the organization.

Looking back, a lot of the work and interactions to-date appealed to the Communal Sharing model (we created this project together) but the introduction of a new stakeholder certainly appealed to Authority Ranking. Ultimately, we took the discussion to a common level (Market Pricing) and, in short, discussed the cost-benefit to undoing parts of the project (which also appealed to Authority) and we jointly decided to end the project, hand over our work performed to-date and allow them to continue in their preferred format (Equality Matching).


Thinking about a project’s various stakeholders, their perspectives outside of your way, and then applying the “Relational Models Theory” can likely both describe and allow you to overcome challenges, have more successful exchanges, or simply understand where a situation may have turned.

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