Here’s One Good Way to Kill Innovation


Encountering an Air Sandwich

I was teaching exec ed this week and I saw a textbook example of an air sandwich.

Here’s how Nilofer Merchant describes it:

An Air Sandwich is a strategy that has 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 filling to align the new direction with new actions within the company.

I was working with a group of future leaders that had been identified by the management of their company.  The firm is in a pretty conservative industry, but they are starting to try to differentiate themselves through innovation.  This vision has been articulated from the top.  And the young managers in the class had been asked to think about how to embed innovation within the organisation.

They came back with a series of pretty interesting ideas, and they presented them in our workshop, with a number of senior leaders from the firm present.  And every new idea that the young guys put forward got shredded by the senior leaders.

Air Sandwich.




How Should You Respond to New Ideas?

There are two ways in which you can respond to new ideas.  Your first response can be “no, that won’t work, here are the problems.”  Or, you can say “that’s interesting.”  And with the second one, you can find ways to build on the idea, or connect it to other ideas to create an even better idea, or at least figure out some way to support the idea.

The firm I’m working with is in a pretty tough industry, and I suspect that the guys giving the rough feedback would say that’s important for the younger managers to harden up – that if they want to make it in this industry they’ll need to be tough.  And that may well be true.

But still, if you are trying to build your innovation capability, you can’t take ten of your bright young managers, ask them to come up with creative ideas to help build that capability, and then just absolutely tear those ideas to shreds when they show them to you.  This is particularly important for this firm – because they have set themselves a tough challenge.  But their overall objectives are admirable, and it’s important that they succeed.

How Should You Respond When Your New Ideas Get Shredded?

So what can you do if you’re the bottom layer of bread in an air sandwich?  You can’t control how others respond to your ideas, but you can exert some control over your own actions.  Here are some ideas:

  • Learn from it. Getting our great ideas to spread is an important part of the innovation process.  Overcoming resistance is a big part of that.  Every criticism of your ideas contains some element of truth – even if it’s based on a misunderstanding, that shows that you need to get your point across more clearly.  We have to learn from this, and improve the deliver of our new ideas.
  • Don’t take it out on others. One big danger in a situation like this is that the young managers will learn that this how to respond to ideas in their firm, and react the same way when the people working for them come up with new ideas.  This will completely kill off innovation.  Instead, we have to use these experiences to build our empathy.  This way, when others put new ideas in front of us, it might help us respond by supporting the idea, building on it, and connecting it to other good ideas.
  • Change your culture. The culture of a firm is not an unchanging fact of life that simply acts upon us.  We re-create it every single day through our interactions.  Just because our managers act in a particular way doesn’t mean that we have to.  We have the opportunity to start re-shaping a culture by changing the way we respond to things.  If we accept new ideas and build on them, others will start to do so as well.
  • Band together. It’s hard to change a firm’s culture on your own.  So another good idea is to find others that are also committed to driving change, and band together.  Cultures rarely change through edicts – it is one thing that is especially open to bottom-up change.

This is Why Innovation is a Challenge

Innovation is hard – if it weren’t, everyone would be doing it.  The environment that we create for new ideas is an important part of building an innovation culture. One of the big problems with shooting down ideas immediately is that doing so assumes that we can know in advance which ideas will work and which won’t.  But we can’t.  This is why experimenting and prototyping are such critical innovation skills.

The best way to figure out which ideas are good is to try them out.  If they work, scale them up.  Here’s how Saul Kaplan puts it:

Learn by doing. Constantly test new ideas. Learn, share and repeat. The world is ever changing — stay ahead of the curve. Embrace the art of discovery.

We need to try more stuff. Innovation is never about silver bullets. It’s about experimentation and doing whatever it takes, even if it means trying 1,000 things, to deliver value.

My main piece of feedback to the teams was: “how could we prototype your ideas?”  If we test an idea, gather data from the test, and learn, that is the best way to combat a culture that shoots new ideas down on sight.  It’s a lot harder to argue with data.

Testing your ideas, and making evidence-based decisions are two more ways to change your culture.  That’s my new idea for the day.  How will you respond – will you tell me why it won’t work, or will you build on it to make it better?

(the air sandwich picture was included in a nice post by Adam McKibben)


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Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

17 thoughts on “Here’s One Good Way to Kill Innovation

  1. Sad they decided to shred. The toughen up view makes me smile. They, the leaders are ‘caught in the headlights” like deer crossing an unknown road, they are ill equipped to navigate across to innovation from where their own experiences come from.

    I wrote a piece on the challenges when innovation is more unknown territory and at the bottom I put forward some thoughts on the ten challenges that need surfacing, not by the future leaders but actually by the existing ones. This needs facilitation and honest exchange.

    Getting at them with equal force but not shredding but probing and they would look on the ideas of the emerging leaders with perhaps different eyes and perspectives.

    The issue is for the leaders to surface their fears first. When they sit back and listen to others it usually means they have nothing to offer in their place apart from this tear and shred.

    They (the leaders) need confronting Tim

    • I agree Paul, and I’m working on it. It was a bit dispiriting for all of us, I think. It will be interesting to see how things progress – the ambitions of the firm are laudable – & I hope they can meet them.

  2. “The firm I’m working with is in a pretty tough industry, and I suspect that the guys giving the rough feedback would say that’s important for the younger managers to harden up – that if they want to make it in this industry they’ll need to be tough.”

    … A Boy Named Sue?

  3. Surely it’s partly down to ego? They are scared these young bucks will have their jobs in a couple of years time. You know the Peter Principle, right?
    PS Great post, great concept – air sandwich! My new meme to bore people with!!!

    • Thanks Marc. I’m sure it is partly ego, and partly that when they were going through the program a few years ago, they probably got about the same type of feedback. But still, it was frustrating to experience.

  4. Yes unfortunate, and each one of those managers will probably react differently. In my early career I always found it hard to take harsh criticism and felt really low when I thought my ideas were stupid. With experience I take advantage of this situation and come back stronger and better prepared.

    I try to get involved when I’m the one judging new ideas. I like to run with them, even if there are some obvious holes, an idea rarely remains unchanged from when it pops out of someone’s head until it’s delivered as value to the company. Out of that early idea might come a real game changer so they need to be nurtured.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences Craig. I think that your first paragraph is particularly important – dealing with this sort of thing is something that you get better at with age and experience. The group I was working with was young – so my hope is that they will be able to use this to build their skills. They’re a smart bunch, so there’s hope!

  5. Tim, Thanks for the excellent blog post. The advice you give these guys ring very true.

    Learn from it, every piece of criticism does indeed contain some truth.

    I especially like the banding together idea. A session like that can create some serious camaraderie, and one really positive outcome would be finding a common cause. With a little time and prototyping these lads might be able to surprise the leaders very much. As you say it is hard to argue with the data.

    It also does prove the point that exposing ideas to the wrong eyes prematurely is a sure fire way to get them killed. This is a tricky situation, as all people in that position probably sees themselves as the best conduit for innovation, and probably kills innovation with “good intentions”.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment Tom. I think that the point you raise about banding together is a really good. There are some signs already that this might be happening, which is definitely encouraging. As I said in the post, I hope they succeed because their overall objectives are admirable.

  6. Great post Tim. It’s been my experience that innovation initiatives inside any organisation will fail if the people paying for the innovation (the senior managers) are not part of the process. Simply telling staff to go away and come up with a bunch of ‘innovative’ ideas will always lead to a big management slap-down. And you can’t buy innovation either – just look at Samsung – they have been engaging the best design firms in the world for years and still produce unusable crap because true innovation is not in their DNA, unlike Apple. If real, actionable innovation is to take hold, the innovators have to bring everyone on the journey, because without being part of the journey all innovation will just appear scary, challenging and disruptive.

  7. I’d instinctively adopted the approach from improv acting: when a line (idea) is thrown at you in the scene, you never answer with “No”, instead, with “Yes” and your follow on riff. That allows you to do some connecting to new ideas, and doesn’t kill the flow. I’ve been trying this at work: there’s new people I’ve brought in, mixed into the old guard, and some ideas are prime candidates for “No, that won’t work here” and the trick has been to get each conversation flipped to “Interesting, here’s what we should think about”. The portfolio is growing… will be looking for ways to review, identify the ideas to continue with, and redirect again the ones that show less promise.

    • I love the “yes, and…” idea from improv. I’ve read a couple of improv books looking for ideas, and that’s the best one that I ran across. Have you ever done any improv yourself?

      • I never did anything on stage, as improv in front of an audience. However, there was a time in the early 1990s when I would hang out with friends and we’d improv
        scenes for fun. (I think I met them through Tom and Joan, they were definitely
        from the Princeton-New Hope area).

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