Social Can Remove The Air Sandwich

by Jay Deragon on 10/02/2012

The air sandwich is the “gap” between an organizations vision and strategy from the top and implementation activities at the bottom.

There’s often a disconnect between high-level strategies and what actually happens during implementation. Strategies end up failing and the people on the front line are blamed for poor implementation.  After all, the executive team created the strategies so all everyone else had to do was execute.

The executive team creates vague strategic objectives and throws them over “a cliff” expecting everyone to understand these objectives. The objectives are tossed downward for front line willing workers to execute. And no one seems to notice the gaping hole in the middle, between the top and the bottom. Mapping, modelling, coordinating, testing hypotheses, iterating, revising, and above all co-creating seem to get left out.  Your strategic objectives may be wrong but you’ll never know until you close the gap.  The “gap” remains and the process gets repeated annually and we wonder why organizational change gets stuck in mediocrity.

We’ve Managed To Butcher Strategic Development

Nilofer Merchant in her book The New How has articulated this phenomenon in what she calls an “air sandwich.” Nilofer writes: An Air Sandwich is, in effect, a strategy that has a clear vision and future direction on the top layer, day-to-day action on the bottom, and virtually nothing in the middle–no meaty key decisions that connect the two layers, no rich chewy center filling to align the new direction with the new actions within the company. see Merchant’s promo video on for a brief explanation with cartoon representation of the air sandwich.

History has taught us that the number one reason strategies fail is because of the lack of execution. History is now teaching us that unless we learn to engage people, not just people called executives, in a conversation about needs, wants and desires we simply cannot expect to meet those needs. Not meeting those needs means we cannot expect people to even want to be engaged with us for whatever purpose.

A strategy with a purpose is about meeting and exceeding needs. The organizations needs are to be able to meet and exceed the needs of employees, suppliers, buyers and shareholders.  Unless you can remove the “air sandwich” you’ll have no ideas about what those needs actually are then your strategic intent will get butchered.

Knowing shareholder needs is simple, give them a return. Knowing the needs of employees, suppliers and buyers means you have to provide the process for them to be engaged in strategic dialog. Otherwise your strategy disseminates like air.

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