Bottoms-up for talent!

Bottom up

During one of our recent programmes on Leading and Managing Talent we were privileged to be invited to the prestigious Adam Smith Institute (ASI) where we heard from their executive director Sam Bowman.

Sam was a real breath of fresh air and it soon became clear that true talent management is genuinely about bringing the best out of people.  To do this however, the organisational climate must be right. We heard that a number of things should be in place and considered as the norm by everyone in the organisation, including things like:

  • freedom for individuals to make suggestions
  • freedom for individuals to follow their experience and instincts in making positive improvements and changes
  • freedom to take calculated risks and make mistakes without being punished
  • inclusive and collaborative styles of leadership and management as the organisational norms – managers as ‘facilitators’, not ‘controllers’
  • a sense of the encouragement of self-determination and self-actualisation throughout the organisation
  • forward looking rather than backwards looking organisational paradigm
  • external rather than purely internal organisational focus

It also became clear that, within agreed boundaries, talent is best managed from the bottom upwards so that people have the freedom to explore and take risks in whatever way they feel is appropriate, allowing the best pursuit and furtherance of organisational vision, mission and goals.  From what we heard, this is certainly the case at the ASI and must surely be part of the reason for their continued successes.

So, what is a bottom up approach then?

A bottom up approach is a concept, that emerged from the more democratic ideals that the wider western world began adopting more in the 20th century. It operates by encouraging participation and cooperation as a way of harnessing the skills and knowledge that the organisations members have to offer to develop a wider peer to peer holocracy.

It is no surprise that employees don’t like to work on things they don’t like to do. So, in terms of talent, taking this bottom-up approach often means that positive infectious energy is created, employee engagement is high and maintained, talent is retained.

What’s wrong with top down?

A top down approach has served many public organisations and private corporates around the world successfully and has worked well for years…right?  Well…perhaps, but whilst well-intentioned, a top down talent management may cause talented individuals to be over-focused in a particular direction or on a particular issue.  Inadvertently this can cause these people to become inhibited in the directions or issues which they feel naturally could or even should be pursued, in an attempt to meet what senior managers appear to want. This again caused us to reflect upon whether talent is calling upon natural skills, or is simply a shorthand way of describing highflyers. My last blog Nature or Nurture explored this dilemma.

It seems that the more guidance, rules and regulations, boundaries and constraints that are imposed ‘from the top’, the more these become a barrier to engagement and success: true creativity and innovation is stifled for those trying to call upon their talents, something that tech giant Netflix realised several years ago and addressed early.


After our visit and during our reflection session, our discussions led us to explore some differences between creativity and innovation – terms which are often used together without really acknowledging that they probably represent two completely different ideas:

Creativity is generally considered to be the thinking of something new (a new idea, concept, product, service), whilst innovation is considered as the implementation of creative ideas into something that adds value to the organisation or society.

Linking this to the concept of talent, we then realised that when talent is considered an inbuilt characteristic of an individual (nature), creativity is likely to be the outcome. When talent is considered to be a high flyer (nurture), this is likely to result in innovation.

My take on this is that a bottom-up approach would seem to encourage talent within an organisation for both the creation of new ideas and innovation of implementation.  With the dramatic shifts in the future and importance of working, highlighted recently by the RSA, this type of talented innovation seems to me all the more important to help solve both impending commercial and societal problems.

We were delighted to hear various examples from Sam, which illustrated well the practical points that he was making. We are indebted to Sam and the ASI for welcoming us and giving us such valuable insights into the world of talent and performance management.


Leading and Managing Talent 2017 - at the Adam Smith Institute, London

Leading and Managing Talent Programme 2017 – at the Adam Smith Institute, London (Pictured with Sam Bowman, Centre)

Notes to editors:

ATi provide bespoke programmes through both face-to-face and supported blended learning, including understanding, developing, leading and managing talent, and the development of effective competency frameworks.

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Professor Ian Favell
Ian is a Visiting Professor at Middlesex University and has been Chief External Verifier for CIPD for almost 20 years. As Principal Consultant for Assessor Training Ltd Ian is particularly interested in quality assurance, assessment and verification, training, learning and development, and the development and use of competencies and competency frameworks.
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