More to Innovation than Ideas

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 the leadership within an organization issues orders from 80,000 feet and lobs them down to the folks at 20,000 feet. Without the benefit of feedback, questions, or even a reality check from below, this strategy isn’t destined for blazing success.

When I witnessed it firsthand, I was working at Autodesk (ADSK), the third-largest software company in the world, where I managed revenues for the Americas region.

It started innocently enough. My boss stopped by my office, excited, with big news: The company had decided to introduce six new product lines within the coming 18 months.

The story she told seemed to have all the makings of a legend. Carol Bartz, who was then CEO but is now at Yahoo! (YHOO), had just shared the results of recent market exploration, which convinced her that this strategic move would propel the company into the future.

Audacious Goal

After her inspiring talk, Bartz prompted the vice-presidents to join the rallying cry. Apparently my boss was the first to volunteer. She said she felt compelled to stand up and assert, “I think we need to do this. Sign the Americas up.”

The vision for the idea was a classic “big, hairy, audacious goal.” Not just a few products over two to three years, but six new product lines in 18 months. A move of this magnitude would touch every facet of our company: revenue forecasts, individuals’ roles, sales efforts, marketing initiatives, product road maps, customer expectations, and the company’s reputation. Every part of the company would need to be integrally involved and well-coordinated for the whole thing to work. I had concerns, but because I assumed everyone understood the breadth of the impact on the company in the same way I did, I didn’t voice them. Who wants to be the one to question a direction, which would seem like tossing a bucket of cold water on the company’s vision?

So I kept quiet. I figured “the leaders” had it under control. Besides, like my boss, I believed in the team. Failure was not an option. Our CEO had said, “We Must,” and my boss said, “We Will.” With that in mind, the larger team and I charged forward with every intention of doing our best and making good on the vision.

Familiar Pattern

But the vision didn’t become real. That set of product innovations didn’t make it into the market for many years—and only after some big compromises. From this specific experience at Autodesk, and another 10 years of working with such companies as Adobe (ADBE), Nokia (NOK), and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), I know that this is not an unusual pattern.

Watching missed business opportunities is always painful. When products fall flat or sales slow down despite best efforts, it’s excruciating to experience the loss of market value. And most of us can guess what comes next: the blame game. Someone must have made the wrong decision or failed to do the right thing. Maybe both. “If only we’d had the right people on the bus, we would have succeeded,” is what we say. The mental betting pools begin on who will wind up getting tossed under that very same bus.

Most often, there’s some good reason for blaming people. After all, mistakes were made. But people aren’t the core reason why strategies fail. They are part of the dynamics, but failures are not simply isolated human missteps that can be avoided in the future by replacing one or two individuals. Instead, the issues are subtle variations of systemic problems. The same few problems crop up, over and over again. We limit participation in strategy creation based on title and rank rather than relevant insight. We insist on lobbing strategy over the wall to the execution team without creating a shared understanding of what matters and why. And we reward individual accomplishment because it is easier than rewarding co-ownership of the ultimate outcomes.

As it happens, this is great news, because in the failures we can study the systemic issues, understand them, and create a new method for moving forward.

As long as we’re eating Air Sandwiches, we lack the way to know precisely how to do an effective job of setting direction and achieving the kind of results we need. And while the “how” of a job isn’t sexy, it’s necessary to fill in the piece from vision to reality. Which is, after all, the real point of business.

(Note: This post was originally published by BusinessWeek, March 2010)

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