Nilofer Merchant - How the Air Sandwich Can Kill Your Business

Jan 9, 2015
6 Min Read

Nilofer Merchant has launched more than 100 products that netted $18 billion. In her 25 year career, she has gone from being an administrative assistant, to division leader, to CEO of Rubicon, to board member of a NASDAQ-traded company – gathering monikers such as the "Jane Bond of Innovation" along the way for her ability to guide organizations through seemingly impossible odds.

I interviewed Nilofer about her recent book, The New How: Creating Business Solutions through Collaborative Strategy and her concept of the “Air Sandwich.” Here are some of the highlights of our discussion.

Can you briefly tell us about the Air Sandwich? Why does this happen and what can we do about it?


Chances are, you’re already familiar with the concept of the Air Sandwich, if not the term itself. An Air Sandwich is what happens when a leader in an organization issues orders from 80,000 feet and lobs them to the folks at 20,000 feet, creating a large, empty void. That gap between the top and the bottom is an Air Sandwich, and just like two pieces of bread without the meat or fixings, this sandwich is missing all the stuff that matters: namely, feedback, debates, trade-off discussions. As long as we’re eating Air Sandwiches in our organizations, we lack the shared understanding necessary to achieve the kind of results our organizations need.

If a leader is accustomed to formulating strategy solo, or with the help of a few higher-ups, how can s/he get employees at all levels involved?

The fastest way to get all levels to play is to invite them. As in, send an email to as broad of a group as possible and say “we’re working on X, anyone interested in working on X is invited.” And then let them work together to figure out the problem that needs to be solved, and the options for solving it. It’s not a group hug scenario (not every vote is equal), but it is an opportunity to come to a shared understanding.

How can leaders make the leap from a great idea to a great strategy?

The best strategic idea means nothing in isolation. If the strategy conflicts with how a group of people already believe, behave, or make decisions, it will fail. Conversely, a robust team that believes in an idea fully can turn a so-so strategy into a marketplace winner. The HOW matters in how we get performance, and that’s why it’s necessary to invite people from all levels to take a seat at the table.

What is the most effectively strategic company you've worked with and why?

My first job in technology was at Apple, and what I’ve seen them do in the mobile space is nothing short of revolutionary. They’ve figured out how to tap into the power of many people’s ideas – what I call onlyness – and have a large group of individuals creating something more robust than what Apple could do by itself. It’s a sign of how the social era works – when you can join together with others in shared purpose, you can create more rich and viable ways to grow.

Why do you think the future of work will involve so much emphasis on co-creation?

The social era is so markedly different than the industrial era. If the industrial era was about building things, the social era is about connecting things, people and ideas. It’s allowing talent of all kinds to count. It’s allowing people to get things done without having to belong to and work up the ranks of organizational structures. It’s giving power more widely to anyone, quite possibly everyone.

Thanks, Nilofer! For more about Nilofer’s work on co-creation, visit her blog, Yes & Know.

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