Birkinshaw's Four Dimensions of Management

Developing an Appropriate Management Model

Birkinshaw's Four Dimensions of Management - Developing an Appropriate Management Model

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The old vs. the new.

Price, specialization, quality, and service – these are just some of the ways that you can gain an advantage in your industry.

But have you ever thought that you could be more successful by tailoring your organization's approach to management to fit your business strategy?

You can explore this with the "Birkinshaw's Four Dimensions of Management" model. We'll look at the four dimensions in this article, and we'll explore how you can use them to develop a more effective management model for your business.

About the Four Dimensions

Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategic and International Management at the London Business School, published his Four Dimensions of Management in his 2010 book, "Reinventing Management."

The framework (see figure 1, below) highlights four dimensions that represent key management processes and practices.

Each dimension has two opposing principles – these principles are "assumptions or beliefs about the way something works or should work." These principles underpin the routine actions that your organization's managers take.

The principles on the left side of each dimension are traditional principles: these are the approaches to management that organizations have used for many decades. The principles on the right are alternative principles: these are newer ways of thinking about management.

Figure 1 – Birkinshaw's Four Dimensions

Birkinshaw's Four Dimensions of Management


You can use the framework to think about the approach to management that you're currently using, and to explore whether you can develop a more effective management model – one that suits your strategy and the way that you want to do business.

Let's look at each dimension, and the corresponding principles, in more detail.

1. Managing Across: Activities

This dimension relates to how managers coordinate activities with people over whom they have no direct control. The opposing principles are:

  • Bureaucracy

    With a bureaucratic approach, organizations use formalized rules, job roles, procedures, and formal guidance to get things done. Results are predictable.

    A certain amount of bureaucracy is needed in most organizations; and, it's especially important in organizations that are dealing with significant risks (including health or safety risks).

    The downside of bureaucracy is that it can make change difficult to achieve, as well as stifling initiative, creativity, flexibility, and autonomy. This can make it very hard for bureaucratic organizations to change direction, and it can disengage and demoralize team members.

  • Emergence

    Emergence is spontaneous and is based on independence and autonomy (which are highly important if you want people to be self-motivated). People organize themselves, work independently, and take appropriate action quickly. Emergence leads to innovation and creativity, as well as to higher morale and better engagement.

    The downside of emergence is that, unless effective structures are in place, teams and organizations can feel chaotic and disorganized. People can lose focus because there are too few boundaries and rules in place, and they can end up taking actions which are rational from the team's perspective, but are harmful from a big-picture perspective.

2. Managing Down: Decisions

This dimension relates to how people make decisions in the organization. The principles are:

  • Hierarchy

    Hierarchy is based on authority and power. Senior managers make decisions, as they are perceived to have more expertise and a better view of the big picture than subordinates.

    Hierarchy can motivate people to work hard in the long-term, because they want to move up to more powerful positions in the organization. It can also be effective for assigning accountability, organizing work, and handling decision making, especially in larger organizations.

    However, hierarchy assumes that "the boss knows best," even when this is not true. It can block upward communication within the organization, and this can lead to poor decision-making by powerful people.

    Management based on hierarchy can also lower morale and engagement if managers don't listen to and support to team members, or if they don't give people credit for their contributions.

  • Collective Wisdom

    Collective wisdom is drawn on when people across all levels of the team and organization contribute to decision-making, and work to solve problems collectively. This improves morale and engagement, and leads to better decisions when knowledgeable people – for example, customer-facing staff – are involved in the decision-making process.

    The disadvantage of using collective wisdom is that it can take a long time to make decisions if too many people are involved in the process. This is a serious problem if you need to make timely decisions.

3. Managing Objectives

This dimension relates to how people set and pursue organizational goals. The principles are:

  • Alignment

    With alignment, everyone works towards common goals set by the organization. This principle offers managers a simple way to get their team members moving in the same direction, and this is hugely important if the organization is pursuing a strategy that needs significant, coordinated action.

    A downside of alignment is that managers instinctively try to use key performance indicators to measure progress. These can be ineffective or counter-productive in hard-to-define areas such as creativity and innovation.

    Alignment can also put too much focus on short-term results rather than long-term growth, and it gives people less flexibility in how they reach their objectives.

  • "Obliquity"

    With "obliquity," people pursue goals and objectives indirectly. For example, instead of setting a direct goal to "increase sales by 15 percent," an organization might set goals that measure how efficiently staff deal with new customers, or that look at employee happiness.

    A long-term consequence of this will hopefully be that sales increase – the organization's overall objective.

    With this principle, team members are also encouraged to work towards their own individual goals, which they intuitively believe will contribute to the overall objectives of the organization. (They may not be able to "prove" this in a straightforward way.)

    With obliquity, team members have greater ownership over their work and they decide how they reach their goals. This can lead to high productivity and engagement.

    Obliquity is often effective in new and evolving businesses, those that demand a high degree of creativity and innovation, or those that need to exploit a wide variety of niches.

    A downside of obliquity is that people can lose direction and momentum if their overall objectives aren't clear, and they can be wrong in their intuitions, which can lead to wasted resources and missed opportunities. It can also make it difficult to achieve results that need significant, coordinated effort.

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4. Managing Individual Motivation

This dimension relates to how people are motivated in the organization. The principles are:

  • Extrinsic

    Extrinsic motivation describes approaches to motivation that come from outside the people being motivated, such as pay raises, promotions, or praise. Negative factors such as pressure and threats can also be part of extrinsic motivation.

    It's relatively easy for organizations to measure performance and reward team members using extrinsic motivators.

    The downside of extrinsic motivation is that these drivers don't always address the deeper needs that we have as human beings, and it can leave us feeling dissatisfied, disengaged, unhappy, and unfulfilled. This, in turn, has a negative impact on creativity and performance.

  • Intrinsic

    Intrinsic motivation relates to the rewards that people experience from doing a task or activity well. Intrinsic motivators are often very satisfying. Most hobbies and leisure activities are based around intrinsic motivation – we do them because we enjoy them, not because we have to, and this is particularly powerful when it applies to work.

    However, intrinsic motivators can be difficult to manage, as these often rely on the activity that a person is doing, and his or her perception of it.

Applying Birkinshaw's Four Dimensions of Management

To use this tool, go through each dimension and think about where your team or organization is right now. Then, think about where your organization should be on each dimension, so that it can best achieve its strategy.

Your aim is to develop the most appropriate management model – as highlighted earlier, this is a set of choices about how the work of management gets done.

Remember that there is no "right" or "wrong" side of the scale. Your approach will depend on your organization, your current situation, and where you want to go strategically.

In reality, many organizations will be on the left-hand end of each scale, which may be fine if that is what their strategy requires. The challenge for managers comes if they want to move from more traditional management principles (on the left-hand side of the dimensions) to the alternative principles (on right-hand side of the dimensions).

Let's look at some of the tools and strategies that you can use to do this.

Moving From Bureaucracy to Emergence

A certain level of bureaucracy is necessary to run an organization effectively, but, often, organizations get bogged down in it. You can develop emergence within your team and organization in several ways.

Start by reviewing your organization's business processes and procedures, so that you can eliminate unnecessary steps. As part of this, map processes out, and challenge the necessity of each step and rule that's applied. Also, get regular feedback from team members on how you can remove bureaucracy and improve processes and procedures.

Then, work on building a culture of trust, so that people know that they can be trusted to do their jobs properly without excessive bureaucracy. As part of this, empower your people, and share as much information with them as you can.

Additionally, give your team members further autonomy by avoiding micromanagement, and by encouraging them to use initiative, where appropriate.

Moving From Hierarchy to Collective Wisdom

At least some level of hierarchy is essential for most organizations to function. However, you can use the principle of collective wisdom in many ways.

Again, build an environment of trust, so that you encourage your people to communicate with one another and speak freely without fear of being judged negatively. This will help you take advantage of your team members' expertise, and will encourage people to be more creative.

Next, involve your people in collaborative decision-making if possible, and use tools such as Hartnett's CODM Model to solve problems collectively.

You can also encourage people to use social networking tools such as blogs, intranet forums, and Twitter to communicate with one another, and you can ask people to present their ideas at team meetings. This will further help people collaborate and share knowledge.


Our Book Insight into "The Power of Collective Wisdom and the Trap of Collective Folly" offers a look at how you can tap into the collective wisdom of members of your team.

Moving From Alignment to "Obliquity"

Obliquity relies on people pursuing "indirect" goals that you and they intuitively believe will benefit the organization in the long term, rather than working on specific, more measurable, shorter-term goals.

To move towards obliquity, establish a clear mission for your team or organization, but then give people flexibility in how they'll work towards this mission, rather than setting out for them how to do their work day-to-day.

One approach – famously used by Google – is to give people a dedicated time-slot during the working week to "follow their hunches." You and other team members can review these projects regularly, and give backing to those that show potential.

You can also brainstorm indirect goals that, when achieved, have the potential to contribute to your team or organization's overall objectives.

Moving From Extrinsic to Intrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivators are often effective; however, you will likely find it best to motivate your people using a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic motivators.

Each person on your team will be motivated by different things, so use tools like McClelland's Human Motivation Theory and Self-Determination Theory to understand what motivates them as individuals (both intrinsically and extrinsically).

Then, encourage people to use tools like the MPS Process, so that they can understand what type of work suits their personality and their strengths, and, where you can, allow them to craft their jobs to suit them better.

Also, remember that changing your management approach in each of the other three dimensions can help people experience more intrinsic motivation. For example, you could get these benefits by allowing team members more freedom in how they reach their goals, and by giving them a say in organizational decision-making.

Key Points

London Business School professor, Julian Birkinshaw, developed his Four Dimensions of Management framework and published it in his 2010 book, "Reinventing Management."

Birkinshaw's Four Dimensions of Management are:

  1. Managing Across: Activities.
  2. Managing Down: Decisions.
  3. Managing Objectives.
  4. Managing Individual Motivation.

Each dimension consists of one traditional and one alternative principle.

You can use the framework to develop a management model that best suits the type of work that you're doing, and the way that you want your organization to develop.