The New How

By: Nifoler Merchant



Have you ever had an air sandwich? It’s where the company's new direction is delivered from an 80,000 foot perspective to the folks holding a 20,000 foot view who in turn then try to co- ordinate the people working on the ground. Producing a big air sandwich. That big 60,000 feet contain a lot of details. And there are devils in those details. They are the details that contain the keys to victory. They’re exactly what Nilofer Merchant is giving us in the pages of this book. A detailed road map for closing the gap between strategy and execution.

So when strategy was separated from execution, what it usually looked like in an organisation is that the CEO or executive team would look down at their organisation and say well, they’re just not executing well. And usually the team that was responsible for execution would look up at their executive team and think that they don’t get it.

How to make an air sandwich.

There are three systematic issues that cause an air sandwich.

First, people get tunnel vision. They don’t step beyond the jobs they are hired to do. Which of course on the face of it seems like that shouldn’t really be a problem. But consider this: speed to market - which is often a large part of strategic process - happens through cross functional participation.

If you aren’t willing to work for and with other parts of your organisation, get your mouth open and get ready for a nice big bite of air sandwich.

The second pattern that Merchant identifies is getting ahead of yourself. It’s a focus on doing without a focus on shared thinking. How can you expect people to fully engage themselves in work if you don’t figure out the details of exactly how you’ll get there with them? You can’t. Time for another bite of that sandwich.

The last pattern of failure is the “it’s not my job” routine. This is like the second cousin of tunnel vision. It’s seeing a problem that should be solved knowing that you should do something about it, but deciding that you won’t take action because its either above or below your paid grade.

Time for that last bite of sandwich. What follows is a nice big glass of collaborative strategy to wash it down. What follows is the quest process that Merchant positions as the solutions to the air sandwich.

Phase 1 - Questions

Before we move on to creating answers we need to understand if we’re asking the right questions. The first thing we’re going to do is identify the scope of the problem. This is the process of determining what we believe needs to be tackled. This is what we call problem architecture. We’ll define the problem or opportunity, just as an architect would work off of a plan. We need to understand what we’re building before we start.

Second we’re going to go on a fact finding mission. We’ll be elephant hunting finding the proverbial elephants in the room, interviewing and researching. The important part in this stage is to talk to as many people as you can who will have input into the issue. They might uncover some proverbial elephants in the room. You get a better sense of how things look from different perspectives. You get these different perspectives by sitting down with the people in your team. As Merchant says, “whom you ask shapes what you learn.”

So make your choices carefully and strategically. A great tip that she offers is to ask each person you interview to refer three other people who they think should be involved in the process. In this way you’ll uncover everybody you need to talk to in order to solve your issue.

Here are some of the questions you can ask to start your exploration process.

  • What do we know about what has been done before? What has been involved?
  • What results did they generate?
  • What do we need to know about why this worked or didn’t work?

Thirdly you’re going to have to share the results of the fact finding mission with the team. The anecdote for an air sandwich is not death by PowerPoint. So don’t make the mistake of turning your findings into a huge full blown document. In general, organising your findings in the following four buckets works best.

Number one, what is known and can be confirmed.

Number two, what you believe but don’t have enough facts to confirm.

Number three, what you doubt.

Number four, what doesn’t fit.

Remember if you start jumping to the answers at this point you are just going to be committing the same mistake you are trying to fix. This process should take between one and ten weeks to accomplish. And once your done that one to ten weeks we are on to phase two about vision.

Phase 2 - Vision

Merchant says that a vision aims to answer the question, “what is the right set of options for you given your problem in particular set of circumstances.” Remember, this isn’t an exercise in an ivory tower somewhere. You’ve got real results to attain and reality to deal with. There are two short and sweet steps to this phase - developing a rich set of options, and tracking criteria that will be used to shape decisions in the second phase.

The goal in this phase is to involve people from all levels of the organisation. This is about adding the meat to the sandwich. In the development meetings you’re going to hold the focus is on exploring possibilities. So you’re going to want to ask questions like, “what if we __?” “Is there a reason why ___?” “What if we tried __?”.

Explore as many angles as you can. Your job as a leader is to ensure that there’s a safe environment for others to share their ideas, but don’t be so focused on creating that safe environment that you don’t produce any productive conflict. Harmony is not your goal here. You might also be tempted to save the ideas that you personally like for the end and then just make them happen. DON’T DO THAT.

One of the most critical steps in this entire process is what Merchant calls “criteria trap.” As you move through the options process you’ll likely start touching on different notions of success. You should explore them and make sure that everybody is on the same page when it comes to defining what success looks like. It’s very easy to get distracted by what seems to be a fantastic idea that has nothing to do with solving your particular issue. DON’T FALL FOR THAT TRAP.

Because this process involves more than just one person or function in the company, make sure that you are creating success criteria for the different areas of the company. Product development, sales, HR and so on.

Not sure how to create that criteria? Well here’s some sample criteria. It will be big enough to be a significant focus for a team. It will available in regions where we are strong, where we are already set up to sell it. It will use our core strengths and it will match our revenue needs for the next four years. That’s specific.

Remember, even if what comes out of the other end of the process will not surprise you as the CEO, it’s about creating an enormous amount of alignment towards a joint goal, and the details that are going to need to be covered. The lack of those things is the air sandwich that caused your previous efforts to fail - please don’t forget this.

Finally this stage should take you approximately one to six weeks.

Phase 3 - Select

Sometimes good enough really is good enough, like deciding what side dish to have for lunch. Or what pants go with that purse. But when the future success or failure of an entire organisation is at stake you probably want to choose the right strategy.

As Merchant says, “most organisations can align with only a certain number of efforts at a time.” Thus, figuring out which vehicles or which strategies are options not to take, is also key. While there are countless books and theories about how you can create ideas, there’s a significant lack of theories for how you narrow it down to one.

That was until Merchant introduced us to murderboarding. Some things are getting lined up for the chocking block here. Weak ideas, and good options put forward at the wrong time. Decent ideas put forth by very nice people. The goal here is to optimise your decision. Note that we are not talking about maximising, where we review every single choice in detail but never actually get down to making a decision. But we also don’t want to be satisficing, which means we pick the first solution that needs the minimal set of requirements.

This is about finding the best possible option within a predefined set of criteria which also happens to include time.

There are four main steps to this process. They include:

  • Deciding what matters. This means we’re formalising the set of criteria we’ve been exploring up until this point. We can’t make any choices until the organisation agrees on the criteria.
  • Sort. We’ll determine which ideas will meet the criteria, and which don’t.
  • Test. We’ll apply the strategy hypothetically in con text and see what further insights develop.
  • Choose. We decide based on all the work we’ve done until this point, which strategy we’re going to put into action.

This process will typically take one day to work through but can sometimes take a little bit longer.

Phase 4 - Take

We’re finally onto phase four which is take. Take is where the rubber meets the road. We all come to an agreement about who owns what in clear and measurable terms. Some people would say that it’s turning it into a SMART goal. Here are some questions you can ask them that might make this step crystal clear for you and your team.

  • What key things you need to do to make this a reality?
  • Do you need to change anything organisationally to make it happen?
  • What specific dependencies do you have on deliverables from other groups?
  • And what risks do we need to account for?

It doesn’t really matter which form you get all the details in as long as you revisit them consistently and always question assumptions and get a little bit paranoid about whether or not you’ll actually get it done.


There is a huge gap between strategy and execution for most organisations. Understanding the steps you need to take can literally mean the difference between staying alive or closing up shop. Make sure that you follow these steps. But also reward your team members who take the challenge up with you. Your entire team will thank you and so will your share holders, whoever they are.