The Power of Bottom-up (Evolution) vs. Top-down (Design)


I’ve been half-speed grappling with an idea for a few weeks now after finishing a spectacular book called The Evolution of Everything.

For a number of years, and perhaps a decade, I’ve been circling a central concept of empowering people. The problem is that the various forms and contexts this has taken has only now (precipitated by reading the book above) allowed me to reach a unified hypothesis.

The basic idea is that the best the future of human advancement and flourishing is firmly rooted in enabling the bottom (people) vs. institutions (middle) or planners (top).

That’s the takeaway. But the reasoning lies in the distinction between evolution and design.

The reasons bottom-up is so powerful is because it leverages the concept of information (and value) exchange in order to produce output that’s better than it ever could have been with sole contributors.

When something is designed and pushed down from the top there is an underlying belief that the few know better than the masses. It may be true (and often is) that these few designers know better than most groups of the same number from the masses, but what it ignores is the power of combination. The power of mutation. The power of constant testing. The power of natural selection.

The question of what type of music will be most popular in 2-3 years time is not something that can be designed or predicted with any degree of accuracy, and the reason for this is that there are thousands of artists competing and contributing to what’s being heard and enjoyed. They then hear each other’s content and adjust accordingly. And the preferences of the audience are changing in a similar way simultaneously.

I break the power of evolution into three core pieces:

  1. The combination and mixture of ideas (genes)

  2. The random mutations of those ideas (descent with modification)

  3. The continuous micro-testing of the performance of those ideas (natural selection)

The more often this happens, using the highest numbers of diverse and quality ideas possible, the better the outcomes you’ll have.

It’s an unbelievably powerful concept.

Real world examples

So I’ve been spending the last couple weeks trying to think of all the different things this applies to. I’ve written about so many of them many times, on their own. As their own pieces of wisdom. What’s blowing me away is how they all get unified by this overarching theme.

  • Empowering People: The way I manage people is captured well in a piece I wrote called Why You Should Treat C-Players Like A-Players. It has a couple of concepts in it, but the most important one is the activation and harvesting of greatness within us all. The idea is that if you want to have a great team, you have to empower them. You have to remove their fear, their insecurities, their belief (likely gained from numerous previous teams and managers) that they are not top-tier contributors. Doing this (exponentially?) magnifies the team’s performance. The team is safe. The team is self-supporting. Everyone is there to make the other team members successful. And there is a mixture of work and personal. Everyone cares about the other on a deep and authentic level. THIS enables true value creation from every member, and when you combine that with the then-obvious rule that we don’t criticize ideas no matter how strange they are, you suddenly have a powerhouse of innovation. There is NO comparison between the output of this type of team compared to a team where the managers are the only producers of ideas, and where the workers simply execute. It’s not even close.

  • AWS Was Created to Empower Developers: Through my work in tech I get to see some fascinatingly innovative environments and talk to the people who built them (knowing Gene Kim and other DEVOPS luminaries doesn’t hurt). What it’s allowed me to do is see a trend of empowerment in the most innovative companies. Facebook’s motto used to be, “Move fast and break things.” That’s empowerment of the bottom. Netflix allows their developers to push code directly to production whenever they want, and there aren’t really any security gates. That’s empowerment. And it turns out that AWS itself was actually created as an internal project to enable developers to create and manage their own IT infrastructure. And that’s precisely how it’s being used by companies like Netflix. Developers don’t ask 3 levels of management for permission to do something, then wait, then have smarter people tell them yes or not. They spin up their own infrastructure using APIs. They are the creators, and everyone else is enabling them. That’s empowerment, and that’s bottom-up.

  • Diversity in the Workplace: The world is just now realizing that having a diverse workforce is a massive advantage. This especially applies to technology fields, and especially to HALF of the world’s population, namely women. The key to the entire concept is any minor difference in approach, capabilities, perspective, whatever—they all add to the mixture of ideas (genes) to produce more diverse mutations of output, and thus more interesting and potentially effective output. Embrace it. Harvest it. It’s not just about fairness and inclusion; it’s about making your team more effective.

  • Blockchain: The idea of a distributed ledger strikes out at the middle-man. It politely says, “Thanks but no thanks—we got this.” The is especially true of initiatives like Ethereum, where the scope is expanded beyond just currency all the way up and out to value exchange. It’s not just banks that are taking notice, it’s everyone who sits in the middle of value exchanges between people and takes large sums of money for it. Blockchain is about peer-to-peer exchange. It’s not the ideas themselves, or their combination, or their testing to provide validated output, but it’s the infrastructure on which this can happen without people in the middle. It’s bottom-up.

  • The Gig Economy: The Gig Economy is peer-to-peer an extremely obvious way. You have a technology layer in between, but it functions mostly as a facilitator and optimizer. It’s not a gatekeeper, and those who attempt to migrated to that will open their flank to disruption from what they used to be. What I find most powerful about this is that what it’ll turn into is everyone presenting every skill they have digitally, a technology layer that links them, and then pure peer-to-peer value exchange. This is a key point in the book I’m writing on The Real Internet of Things. The Gig Economy is going to become just “The Economy”.

  • Self-government: The concept also started me thinking about my views on politics. I’m a progressive guy, but I’ve always tried to stay aligned with central ideas as opposed to parties because they mix, mash, confuse, contort, and otherwise completely contradict themselves in terms of principles. What this unified theory has done for me is crystalize some of my core principles and situate them around the bottom-up concept. I’ve not thought these all the way through yet, but the central themes seem to be 1) government down approaches are just like design, and are the opposite of bottom-up (evolution), 2) People don’t need to be told what’s best for them, they need to be empowered to make those choices on their own, 3) the role of government should (perhaps) be the bumpers on the side of a wide open bowling lane, not groves that determine where the ball goes, 4) for evolution to be successful you must have a healthy modeling of failure; if nothing fails then you don’t get the benefits of saying, “Ok, that didn’t work, let’s try something else.” People have to be able to fail as well, and feel some sort of negative repercussions associated with that. Then we provide the tools and options for them to make better choices, and we move on. But a key component is personal responsibility; it goes hand-in-hand with the empowerment piece. The founders seem to have had it mostly right in terms of focusing on individuals and them being the center of the union. It gets upleveled a bit with a Republic because of scale issues, but that might be a problem we can increasingly solve with technology. In fact I’m predicting exactly that.

  • Universal Daemonization: Finally, (and I don’t want to say too much) I am working on a book that talks about the future of the Internet of Things, and how I see technology intersecting with humanity. I’m trying as hard as I can to get this thing out quickly, and the ideas within are remarkably in-line with the concepts above. I’m actually super excited about how how cleanly the book’s concepts merge into this idea.

This idea has me charged up. I keep seeing more and more examples of it in my previous thoughts and ideas, in other great books I’ve read, etc.

I’m going to keep adding to the list of examples above as I find more, and if you know of any please let me know via SM or email.


  1. The Google study on what makes effective team was another big influence on the unified theory of team leadership.