Fighting The “Air Sandwich”: Aligning For Success

For a while now I’ve been observing a similar pattern in some companies I’ve worked for or had contact with: There’s often a disconnect between high-level strategies and what actually happens during implementation. Execs don’t get what they want, and employees work hard on projects that ultimately fail.

The metaphor I use is that of a “cliff”: stakeholders throw vague ideas over “a cliff.” They quickly plummet downward for individual contributors 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.

Happily, Nilofer Merchant in her book The New How (O’Reilly, 2009) has articulated this phenomenon much better than I have. She too has observed this disconnect between the top and bottom layers of an organization. It’s 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.

Also see Merchant’s promo video on for a brief explanation with cartoon representation of the air sandwich.

The metaphor is reminiscent of the “Where’s The Beef” campaign Wendy’s hamburg chain restaurants launched decades ago. In our case, the top bun would be the high-level strategy; the bottom bun is execution and implementation. And there’s nothing in between–no beef.

I was reminded of the “air sandwich” again when reading an article by Alexander Osterwalder (of business model canvas fame) and Yves Pigneur (see: “An e-Business Model Ontology for Modelling e-Business“). They discuss three levels of business structure: The planning or strategy level, the architectural or business model level, and the implementation or process level.

Here’s the diagram from the article illustrating these levels:

Figure 1: Levels of an organization (Osterwalder and Pigneur)

Notice that middle level. That’s the one that gets left out. That’s where the air sandwich comes from: a lack of focus on the architectural level. This layer is like an equation or a series of IF-THEN statements. It’s the governing logic of how the business is to function and what employees are to do. Without this algorithm in place, folks are left to improvise or make assumptions. Osterwalder and Pigneur argue that an explicit business model provides a framework for architecting and managing the business logic.

Regardless of what you call it–a “cliff,” an “air sandwich,” or the “architectural level”–the pattern is the same: senior management complains that their brilliant ideas don’t get implemented properly: “If we could only get execution right, we’d be better off.” Lower-level managers and individual contributors, in turn, groan about how stakeholders don’t “get it.” They don’t buy into those “brilliant ideas,” and they don’t believe in the direction set from above.

What’s the answer? Should we expect execs to roll up their sleeves and detail everything out? Not exactly–that would quickly become micro-management. Still, instead of crapping bricks of strategic poo from their ivory-lined corner offices on the heads of the mere mortals who implement the stuff, execs can make sure their vision and plans are broken down and architected for execution. In other words, they need to make sure the middle layer is aligned upward and downward and that there is no “air sandwich.”

For instance, execs can engage the bottom more frequently and actively to gather input into what will actually work. Often it’s people closest to the customer or the production line or a service partner that will know where the showstoppers may lie. Instead of creating a strategy in behind closed doors and then telling the rest of the company what their future is, execs should co-create the strategy with a variety of sources of input from all levels.

But from the bottom up there are things that can be done too. In particular, applying design thinking to the architectural level can provide a different picture of a given situation. Instead of griping about a lack of vision or direction, use your skills to draw a picture of the architectural layer. Literally.

You may have already heard me beating the drum about “alignment diagrams,” for instance. This class of document provides a structured overview to some of the middle layers of a business. More importantly, they bring a strong customer perspective into the discussion and align this with business activity.

In the end, the fighting the “air sandwich” needs to be done from all directions–from the top and from the bottom.

Some may say, “We don’t have time to plan every detail” or “We need to be first-to-market on this one” and “Let’s just start executing without all the planning.” But combating the air sandwich makes execution more efficient in the long run. Simply put, it makes economic sense to spend time getting the business logic right before going off to execute a plan. “If you get the thinking right, the doing is much easier,” to quote Ms Merchant again.


See my upcoming workshops on Alignment Diagrams:

  1. Thursday 22 Sept 2011, Prague, CZ – Part of Euro IA 2011
  2. Thursday 3 Nov 2011, London, UK – Part of UX Fest London

Also see some articles and presentations on alignment diagrams:

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Experience at MURAL


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