Birkinshaw’s Four Dimensions of Management

Julian Birkinshaw, a leading global management thinker from the London Business School, produced the Four Dimensions of Management model in his 2010 book ‘Reinventing Management’. The author believed far too many organisational processes were dictated by the status quo and hence weren’t being effectively aligned to their overall strategy.

He outlined four key management processes and practices that occur in nearly every organisation and play a leading role in any strategy. The first, ‘Managing Across: Activities’, describes the coordinating activities taking place that are not covered by managers directly controlling individuals. For instance, this may be formal rules set by senior management that affect every employee. The second dimension, ‘Managing Down: Decisions’, relates to day-to-day decision making by management. ‘Managing Objectives’ describes the setting and pursuit of organisational goals and ‘Managing Individual Motivation’ relates to the driving forces behind employee motivation.

Each dimension can then be broken down into two principles at opposing ends of a scale; traditional and alternative. Traditional practices are ones that have taken place for a long time and are generally assumed to work well, whereas alternative processes are newer, more controversial managerial techniques. For each dimension both traditional and alternative processes have negative and positive characteristics, although generally organisations tend towards the traditional side.

The author is not suggesting there is a right or wrong side to be on, however, he is suggesting managers should attempt to place their current processes on the scale and ask themselves if this is the most effective way to achieve their overall strategy. Below we have gone into more detail on the reasons for adopting either principle for each dimension. There is often an opportunity to increase efficiency and better align towards your overall strategy by shifting processes to the right and hence we have also given examples of how this could be done.

Managing Across: Activities

Bureaucracy – Formalised rules, roles and procedures are valuable in giving consistency and structure to organisations. Without them it would be difficult for large and complex organisations to function effectively, in particular if they operate in high risk industries. However, they also have the power to block individual creativity and freedom. This can reduce productivity and de-motivate employees.

Emergence – Complete independence and autonomy can motivate employees to work creatively and substantially increase levels of innovation. However, this can also lead to a lack of communication, organisation and direction, with a risk of losing sight of overall organisational objectives.

One method of increasing the levels of ‘emergence’ is to gather information and feedback about the existing processes and, based on this, remove inefficient/unnecessary ones. 

Managing Down: Decisions

Hierarchy – Decisions are made based on where individuals sit within the company. Senior managers are fully responsible for employees below them and are accountable for work and decisions. This makes decision making fast and simple, but also allows good decisions from lower down to be ignored. The idea is that the more senior an employee is the better they are at making decisions, however this is not always the case.

Collective Wisdom – In a scenario where everyone contributes to the decision making process there is less chance of good ideas being ignored. This also has the power to motivate and engage employees lower down, but can lead to an expensive and time consuming process.

Increasing levels of creativity and trust can help to move towards the ‘collective wisdom’ parameter. This could be done by including junior members in decision making discussions or delegating more responsibility. 

Managing Objectives

Alignment – Common individual goals across the whole company make targets clear to achieve and assess. This can lead to individuals meeting targets simply to gain rewards, when they in fact do not affect organisational performance.

Obliquity – Specific individual objectives can provide more motivation and align better to each individual’s team needs. They are timely to develop and assess, however.

To emphasise more ‘obliquity’, managers can remind their employees of the overall objectives of the company, but give them freedom for what methods they take to achieve them.

Managing Individual Motivation

Extrinsic – These motivational factors, like performance related pay and promotions, go a long way to motivating employees to work hard. However, many individuals find they only work up to a certain point, where the job you are doing and the satisfaction it gives you becomes more important.

Intrinsic – Assessing what exactly gives your employees enjoyment and satisfaction, and subsequently tailoring their roles, can be an excellent motivational tool. However, it is often difficult to establish what these mechanisms are.

Investigation into what exactly motivates your employees can increase ‘intrinsic’ motivation. This is most effective when it is used to dictate future roles and responsibilities. 

Cleary, there is no right position to be on the scale for each dimension for every organisation. However, the model asks managers to assess where they currently lie on the scale and if a movement along it will result in an overall improvement in performance.


Birkinshaw Four Dimensions

Birkinshaw, Julian M. (2010). Reinventing Management. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. Print.

Briskin, Alan. (2009). The Power of Collective Wisdom and The Trap of Collective Folly. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009. Print.