The value of thinking top-down versus only thinking bottom-up

The value of thinking top-down versus only thinking bottom-up

You are welcome to either read or listen to this post. 

Click the image below to listen, or scroll down to read.


Tengke summed this up perfectly in this week's Clarity First Workshop.

He said: ​​“In my experience, the closer people are to senior leadership levels, the better they are at thinking top-down.

“​​The lower their level, the more they think bottom-up”.

This was an astute observation.

Leadership roles require us to think quickly about a wide range of topics. We don't have the luxury of thinking about everything from scratch and yet at the same time must have the ability to ‘sniff out' problems.

Tying this comment and my own observations together with a conversation I had recently about the cognitive competencies required for successful leadership, leads me to to ask a further question.

Is this ability to think top-down innate or is it learned?

It is, in my opinion, both innate and learned.

Let me explain how I have seen that work.

Thinking top-down about a problem involves having the intellectual capacity to do so as well as the right experience

Lightbulbs went on for me everywhere when I was speaking with my colleague Jane about the work I do in helping people use structure to unearth the thinking problems hiding beneath the surface of their communication.

She shared some useful information with me about the thinking skills she incorporated into a talent framework for a multi national resources company, which link directly to this idea of ‘top-down thinking'.

She said there were four key cognitive competencies that demonstrate leadership potential:

Helicopter thinking. This is the ability to mix conceptual and analytical thinking together. In Clarity First I describe this as ‘porpoising', or the ability to think in a way that mirrors the swimming patterns of a porpoise that dives down deep into the oceans and then swims back up to the top before going down again. The ability to oscillate between higher order ideas and lower level details is an essential attribute of not only a leader, but of someone who can think strategically.

Analytical thinking. This is what we are taught at university and, if we are lucky, refine further when at work. It is the ability to break problems into parts and solve them systematically, using our critical thinking abilities to evaluate the quality of our work as we go. 

Imaginative thinking. This is as it sounds: the ability to be creative. To think of out of the box solutions. To find new and novel ways of doing things rather than just following a set process. This competency has a heavy innate component, but can to a certain extent be learned.

Sense of reality. This relates to solid business judgement – acumen if you will – that comes through experience and mentoring. It can absolutely be learned by those with sufficient IQ needed for their area of work.

The good news is that if we are people with a growth mindset who are moderately bright, we can all make progress in all of these areas. So long as we have sufficient innate capacity, we can all get better at these four thinking skills.

The very fact that you are reading this post suggests you are likely to have sufficient innate capacity.

However, in my experience, few people intuitively know how to think top down 

This ability comes as a result of one or most likely a mix of the right kinds of knowledge and experiences to add to your innate ability. It seems to me there are four that matter most.

It may include years of experience in a specific area so you ‘just know' where to look to find problems or opportunities that others miss. A bit like the tailor I refer to in this post.

In this instance, the ability comes as a result of years and years of working bottom up, doing the analysis and developing an intuition for what works in a particular setting and what does not.

The key here is that the ability is contained to a particular setting, or at best to that setting and related ones. And gaining the ability is slow.

It might also include being inspired by someone who does it well. In my case, my boss of 30+ years ago was a whiz at explaining complex ideas using diagrams. This was very early in my corporate career, and I had never seen anyone do that before nor had I thought about communicating this way.

I am not sure I will ever remember what he drew, but I do remember thinking “I want to be able to do that” and have continued to strive for that since.

It may also involve being taught how to use and apply specific frameworks. This is where top-tier consulting experience is golden, as we are exposed to people who are expert at using – and in fact, designing – robust thinking frameworks that apply across multiple disciplines.

For example, when thinking about a change management challenge I default to two key frameworks which I use to scaffold my thinking. McKinsey's Psychology of Change and PROSCI's ADKAR framework.

At times I also merge the Psychology of Change framework with another simple one from PA Consulting, which describes the delivery phases of any change program in the simplest of terms. The items even rhyme to make them memorable.

Even better, it may involve being taught how to create, use and test frameworks that apply across many disciplines.  

In Clarity First we teach universal thinking principles (based in logic and synthesis, so I am comfortable with using ‘universal' for these) combined with some others that we have developed, which are widely applicable.

Having helped people communicate across just about every area I can think of (and when I include my colleague Gerard's 30+ years' of similar experience, we cover a huge territory), I am confident our storyline patterns help their users add value and save tons of time across many many disciplines.

Just this week I have helped people in the following disciplines to use these patterns: human resources, engineering, project management, pharmaceuticals, medical affairs, technology and the law. And this is a pretty normal week!

So, to experience the time saving and value-adding benefits that top-down thinking offers, I suggest taking three steps

I'll outline them here one by one here:

#1 – Be aware that it is something worth doing. I hope this post has inspired you to learn more about thinking top-down and how it can help you add more value while also saving tons of time.

#2 – Want it enough to learn how to do it. This part is entirely up to you. You need to decide if it is worth finding areas of your work that would benefit from top-down thinking. You also need to evaluate whether you want to save time by avoiding the need to do the same task many many times to identify the patterns, and also how useful it is to you personally to deliver more valuable work.

#3 – Follow through and actually learn how to apply it. This involves investing enough time and energy to go further than just ‘hearing about a good idea', but to building repeatable skill and establishing new thinking habits that will deliver you consistent results over time.

In closing, I might point out that this list of actions was heavily inspired by a framework 😉

Have a great week.
Regards, Davina






‘Awesome’ Problem Solving Strategies

‘Awesome’ Problem Solving Strategies

There has been a lot of discussion lately around different thinking strategies we can employ when preparing our communication.

This topic has led to a slew of emails with people in the Clarity First community who have shared their experiences with me.

Some have discussed their experience with leaders who have excelled at getting the right balance between top-down thinking and bottom-up reality.

One person said to me they loved working with two well known CEOs who were able to think strategically while also being savvy enough to get on the shop floor to see if their ideas would really work from the bottom up.

They also shared experiences where they worked for someone else who did not have that balance right. Their ideas sounded terrific in theory, but were difficult to implement because they would not ‘roll their sleeves up' to understand what was needed to make them operational.

Getting this top-down, bottom-up balance right is part of the art of our work.

So, today I am taking this conversation further by interviewing Pete Mockaitis from Awesome at Your Job.

Pete has an impressive record, having recorded almost 600 podcasts, which have been downloaded more than 10 million podcast times over the past few years.

In this interview Pete shares thinking strategies that may help you in your problem solving work, in particular:

  1. Two essential questions to ask if you want to be sure an idea is worth exploring
  2. Practical examples of how this has played out in his own work, both when he was a consultant at Bain & Co, and in his own business
  3. Ways to identify when to use, and when NOT to use hypothesis-based problem solving strategies

Click below to listen to this 38-minute interview.





Keywords: Pete Mockaitis, Awesome At Your Job, structured thinking, problem solving, top-down thinking, interview


How to use your critical thinking abilities to turbo charge your communication skills

How to use your critical thinking abilities to turbo charge your communication skills

When I first joined McKinsey as a communication specialist, I was astounded at how quickly consultants came up with rigorous ways to think about new issues.

Over time I came to see how they did it and wanted to share one related strategy that will help you with your communication.

Thinking top down boosts your impact enormously while also providing a useful framework for doing justice to your analysis when communicating.

Here are three ideas to help you put that into practice:

  1. Understand what top-down thinking is about
  2. Get into the helicopter first
  3. Make like a porpoise

I'll run them through in more detail one by one.


Understand what top-down thinking is about

Top-down thinking is about identifying the things that matter most before either deciding what problem to solve or building the supporting case for your point. 

In practice, it’s a bit like when you go to an experienced tailor: they don’t tally up each measurement and then look at a chart to know that you are a size 42 regular.

They take a quick look at you and have a hunch that you look like a 42 regular and then test that hypothesis by taking out their measuring tape to check that they are right.

If their measurements disprove their hunch, they adjust their thinking to conclude that perhaps you are a size 40 disguised in baggy clothing.

In problem solving, this means thinking through the roadmap before digging into any particular aspect of the analysis. 

Consultants rely on previously used frameworks to give them ideas for identifying what that roadmap looks like. You can also do this by adopting the standard framework used in your industry or discipline and complement that by grabbing hold of the HBR guide to Key Management Models.

In communication, this works largely the same way. With experience, we can identify the communication pattern and then test it using a set of principles to check that our message and supporting points do their job. We outline both the patterns and a useful test in our short and practical book, The So What Strategy.

Top-down and bottom-up strategies complement each other but starting with the top magnifies our impact and saves us significant amounts of time.

So, let’s look at how you do that.


Get into the helicopter first

As with many things, the idea of thinking top down isn’t that hard.

Doing it, however, is not as straightforward unless you have a process to follow.

Here is how I think about it when preparing a piece of communication.

When thinking through my strategy before I draft anything, I focus on absolutely nailing two things: my purpose and my

This is information that doesn’t appear inside my communication, but rather shapes it.

In going through this process, I ask myself many things to confirm each element. When thinking about my audience though, there is one critical question that I always ask: What would they need to know to agree with me, or do what I need them to do?

I then brainstorm and prioritise my thoughts so that I end up with a high-level list of no more than five points that I must focus on.

I then work top down as much as possible to craft my communication, and work bottom up to test that the ideas are in the right place.

In the Clarity First Program we teach you exactly how to do this.

This brings me to my next point.


Make like a porpoise

Have you seen the way a porpoise bobs up and down as it swims?

This is a useful image for me when I think about how I make sure I take full advantage of both top down and bottom up
thinking when I prepare my communication.

As discussed above, I first sort out my top-level messaging.

Having now been helping people prepare their communication for a couple of decades, I am a bit like the tailor I mentioned earlier. I default to key storyline patterns to fast track this process wherever possible.

I then iterate up and down through the hierarchy of my thinking until I am confident that all if the ideas I need to communicate have a logical place in my storyline.

This played out real time in today’s coaching session.

I worked with a team to prepare a short but contentious email outlining some changes to their priorities that partner organisations needed to know about.

We started thinking through our strategy, mapped out our high-level messaging and then as we worked our way toward the end, asked ourselves whether each point was in the right place.

To do that, we assessed the links between our ideas and the inferences we were drawing at each stage.

We checked that the introduction would draw the audience into our main point quickly, that the ideas that supported that main point are organised to be MECE (mutually exclusive and cover everything).

We also double checked that the words on the page achieved our initial purpose and addressed the concerns of the most important audience members.

The team will then communicate the message top down.

They will begin with a short introduction and follow with the main idea and then the right depth of carefully mapped ideas to support that idea.

They will enable their audience to get the big picture quickly and follow the argument step by step.

Click here to learn how to do this for yourself.



Davina has helped smart people all over the world clarify and communicate complex ideas for 20+ years.

She began this work when she joined McKinsey & Company as a communication specialist in Hong Kong where she helped others use the Minto Pyramid Principle.

She continued helping others when living in New York, Tokyo and now back in Australia where she was approved by Barbara Minto herself to teach Pyramid.

Her clients include experts across many disciplines across Australia, Asia Pacific, New Zealand, the UK and the US. She currently coaches a number of C-suite executives as well as many mid-level folk and the occasional graduate.

Get her 4 Tips for Communicating Complex Ideas here.

Ironically, writers need to educate readers about what ‘reader-focused’ means

Ironically, writers need to educate readers about what ‘reader-focused’ means

The Minto Pyramid Principle is a widely lauded approach for preparing clearer business reports.

Developed by a McKinsey & Company team led by Barbara Minto in the 1960s, ‘pyramid’ helps people use logic and structure to organise their ideas into a logical and coherent reader-focused argument.

At Clarity First we love this approach.

It enables us to think top down, draw out insights quickly and communicate complex ideas clearly.

However, despite much evidence from our own work and its popularity across consulting and business strategy teams in particular, very little formal research has been undertaken into its actual effectiveness.

Perhaps it was enough to say “It’s McKinsey: It’s good”.

However, Dr Louise Cornelis (another ex-McKinsey communication specialist) recently changed this when working with a series of Masters’ students at Groningen University in Holland.

She undertook a qualitative study to understand whether preparing a business report using a ‘top-down, reader-focused pyramid structure’ was actually helpful to the reader.

Dr Cornelis’ findings demonstrate some irony.

Writers and readers don’t always agree on what is ‘reader-focused’ unless the writer first educates the reader about what ‘reader-focused’ actually means.

Here is why that seems to be true.

#1 – Audiences are hard wired into their old habits

It seems that our readers are hard-wired into what they expect and can be confused by a new way of doing things unless it is explained to them.

In the case of business reports, many people are accustomed to receiving reports written with titles such as ‘Executive Summary’, ‘Background’, ‘Issues’ and a ‘Conclusion’ at the end and are quite lost when these are absent.

They can be confused by Pyramid reports that ignore these section titles, preferring to instead have customized titles that reflect the content of the report: a bit like newspaper headlines.

#2 – Consultants and others using the approach often forget to explain how their approach works

When, however, the approach is explained they not only like the Pyramid Principle approach much better, but can read the documents significantly more quickly.

Readers who were provided with a short description of the structure before reading the documents were able to grasp the main message from a document almost five times faster than those with no preparatory explanation.

Dr Cornelis found that people very much appreciated the Pyramid Principle report-writing approach but only when they understood what it was trying to do.

So the next time you have a good idea: remember to ensure your significant others understand the benefit, even when the idea is specifically for the them.



Keywords: design your strategy, develop your storyline, research


Louise Cornelis is a communication consultant based in Rotterdam. Louise specialises in helping her clients use structure and logic to communicate clearly, having learned her craft at McKinsey & Company and honed it by working with a wide range of clients since.

She particularly enjoys grappling with complex challenges that relate to helping others not only communicate clearly, but want to do so. The Clarity First team very much enjoys thinking about these challenges in collaboration with Louise.


Davina has helped smart people all over the world clarify and communicate complex ideas for 20+ years.

She began this work when she joined McKinsey & Company as a communication specialist in Hong Kong where she helped others use the Minto Pyramid Principle.

She continued helping others when living in New York, Tokyo and now back in Australia where she was approved by Barbara Minto herself to teach Pyramid.

Her clients include experts across many disciplines across Australia, Asia Pacific, New Zealand, the UK and the US. She currently coaches a number of C-suite executives as well as many mid-level folk and the occasional graduate.

Get her 4 Tips for Communicating Complex Ideas here.