PSOhub Blog

Horizontal vs Vertical Project Management: Pros & Cons

horizontal-vs-vertical-project-management (1)

For the most part, you can describe the structure of the majority of business organizations as fundamentally horizontal or vertical: 

The former has less of a hierarchy, with higher levels of responsibilities dispersed across teams, whereas vertical organizational structures have ironclad levels through which work must flow up and down. 

The vertical-horizontal dichotomy extends into project management, with vertical workflows happening in waterfall approaches and horizontal ones dominating more agile frameworks.

Here we break down the differences of horizontal versus vertical project management, including the pros & cons, plus the concept of a hybrid model. 

A question of structures and communication

The differences between horizontal and vertical project management systems get down to two things: the structure of the organization and the communication trajectories 

First, whether or not a project manager engages in either horizontal or vertical workstreams to complete their projects will depend foremost on the structure of the organization itself

In a vertical system, decisions flow from top to bottom, but more horizontal companies allow for decisions to be made at multiple tiers. Vertical is the more traditional model, complete with a distinct leadership structure at the top level, followed by management, middle management, and employees at the bottom. 

Work flows both up and down vertically, as the C suite or executives make calls that then are passed down the pipeline, and come back up for approval.

By contrast, a horizontal structure does not have as much of a linear hierarchy, with fewer managers and more employees able to make decisions without going through an approval process from management. 

Next up are communication styles, as these will influence whether or not a project is categorically being executed vertically or with a horizontal model. Horizontal communication is what takes place between workers who are at the same level. 

Vertical communication is more akin to the old-school business model, where managers and those at higher levels communicate ‘down’ to the employees they manage and vice versa. 

Horizontal project management

Horizontal organizations with horizontal communication styles are most likely going to manage their projects in the same fashion. These include startups, creative agencies, and other businesses with more of a focus on project delivery versus putting in place hierarchies and strict processes. 

Key characteristics of horizontal project management include:

  • Individual team members are empowered to make their own decisions
  • Fewer managers, more autonomous employees
  • Free-flowing communication
  • Free-flowing collaboration
  • Aligned with agile project management

Pros & Cons

Horizontal project management is a great plan of action for many startups and small businesses with employees in whom owners and management have a ton of trust. 

However, the lack of structure and clear-cut decision-makers make it a no-go for businesses that want to scale quickly. Here are the benefits and drawbacks of the horizontal model in project management:


  • Increased level of collaboration - In horizontal project management, collaboration is easier, as there are fewer processes in place to dictate communication streams and decision approval. Team members are free to reach out to one another, management, and even other people from outside organizations in order to collaborate effectively. Simply a Slack message on the correct channel is usually enough decorum. 
  • Increased problem solving - Because there are no bureaucratic hoops to jump through when an issue arises, managers and team members alike are more empowered to discover solutions and share them.
  • Individual team members have more ownership of results - Horizontal projects allow for more input from employees than vertical structures. Because there is significantly more autonomy, individuals have more sense of ownership, and more commitment to project results. 
  • Helps creatives flourish - Creatives are notorious for rebelling against vertical structures, so oftentimes, they can really thrive in more horizontal workflows that give them the freedom to play and discover. 


  • Slower decision-making - In horizontal project management scenarios, decisions are often made at a slower pace, since more people have input into the outcome. 
  • Difficult to scale - Scaling services with the horizontal model also proves difficult, as it's harder to replicate processes and workflows when individual team members are the ones determining what functions better for them. With a scattered hierarchy, responsibilities can get muddled, and it will take more time to figure out the science of scaling. 

Vertical project management

Vertical project management follows more of a hierarchical pattern than horizontal pm. There’s generally less risk and more structure, with a clear chain of command. Vertical project management is common in larger companies and with mega projects in construction and design. 

Key characteristics of vertical project management include:

  • Decisions made at higher levels of management
  • More managers, less autonomous employees
  • Communication flows up and down from management to employees
  • More formal collaboration
  • Aligned with the waterfall method

Pros & Cons

Vertical project management will make sense for a large construction project, like a bridge, where experts play a key role in the management structure. On the flip side, vertical work streams and communication can prove a waste of time with smaller agencies whose team members wear multiple hats. Here are the upsides and downsides of going with the vertical model:


  • Clear structure & chain of command - In the vertical project management model, there’s never a question as to who is responsible for what or who gets to make the call. Employees have a clear chain of command to help resolve problems, and the distinct structure helps individual team members stay in their lane.
  • Provides for scaling & replication - Vertical models can be more easily replicated across teams and make scaling easier for growing businesses. With the major decisions in the hands of upper management, employees simply follow along within their wheelhouse as they take on more clients. 
  • Increased accountability - Instead of a more fluid structure where individuals may wear many hats, vertical systems clearly define levels of accountability. It’s easier within a vertical workstream to see where the buck stops and address problems directly with the responsible party. 
  • Expert decisions - Unlike a horizontal startup where team members may be making decisions on the fly, vertical systems will usually involve experts at the management level. These experts become the final say when major issues arise, which comes in handy with larger projects that necessitate a wealth of knowledge and experience to deliver the results the customer expects.


  • Limited collaboration - In vertical project management, collaboration is more of a formal affair, with processes in place that dictate how and when it happens. This lack of free-flowing feedback can hinder creatives and developers who may not be able to act as quickly on a new idea or feature. 
  • Less employee ownership - Employees are less autonomous, which can create a disconnect between working on a project and owning the results. In the horizontal model, teams usually feel like there’s more at stake at the individual level. 

What about a hybrid model?

Although the horizontal method will usually appeal most to startup businesses, it’s hard to deny the benefits a vertical structure will bring when it comes time to scale. 

As far as project management goes, a hybrid between vertical and horizontal methodologies often proves effective at standardizing decision-making and other processes while granting employees more autonomy for collaboration. 

What’s more, you get the ability to leverage the strength of each methodology while offsetting the negatives of one another, as brilliantly described in this article, How to Be a Horizontal and Vertical Leader at the Same Time

“The big idea is that savvy hybrid leaders leaven the structure of vertical bureaucracy with a more respectful and empowering culture of horizontal networks.”

Hybrid models are known to work well in software development, as developers are free to collaborate horizontally and make small decisions on their own, but will defer to experts on certain technical issues, for example. 

Key takeaways

Whether or not a project management system is horizontal or vertical in structure will depend largely on the structure of the organization itself and its communication styles. 

Horizontal project management is more associated with the agile approach, with decision-making spread among many individuals who have increased autonomy. 

Vertical management coincides with the waterfall approach, where a clear hierarchy of management exists to make decisions that are then passed down to employees.

Horizontal project management provides a lot of benefits, especially for startups who need to hone in on delivering products and services above all else. 

However, it’s more difficult to scale horizontal processes, and quite frankly, some individuals need more supervision.

Conversely, vertical project management benefits larger companies and small service businesses that want to be able to scale quickly. 

However collaboration will usually be more stifled, and employees aren’t as connected to the results of their work. 

Hybrid models that play on the strengths of both methods work well for projects where both high creativity and high levels of expertise are required. 

It’s hard to find a downside to these types of structures, except that codifying them in the interest of scaling could prove difficult.

To employ any of these methodologies in today’s digital world requires a staunch project management suite to manage tasks, resources, budgets, and more. Try PSOhub for FREE today and improve your team’s efficiency with all the advanced tools you need at an affordable price 🙂