There’s No Such Thing As “Culture In A Box”

culture in a box

Early on in my consulting career I worked alongside a Retail Operations Improvement firm. They did the retailing operations and I was involved in the training of staff, store managers and team training.  One of the interesting innovations I saw implemented to improve selling effectiveness in retail stores at that time was the concept of a “Retail Planogram“.

retail planogram

Any good retailer realises the key to increased sales is through proper merchandising. A retail planogram is one of the best merchandising tools for presenting products to the customer. Basically this is a schematic drawing that shows the visual placement of each product and how the entire merchandise section should be arranged.  This created both consistency and efficiency for staff set-up and restocking, but also, through actual research of customer shopping behaviours, the planogram positioned products in categories, by shelf height, and brand attraction to provide the best merchandising display to match consumer needs.

Fast forward several decades and the rate of opening new retail stores, whether franchises or big box retail stores has dramatically increased. In order to make store development and opening more cost efficient, the concept of “store in a box” has evolved. Basically this is a retail planogram on steroids for an entire store. For some smaller franchise operations, the entire store fittings, equipment, stock, everything comes prepackaged in a big truck, ready to be set up according to the planograms provided. Instant store! Quick, convenient, cost-effective, and properly branded and merchandised.

Corporate Culture in a Box?

In today’s fast-moving business world where margins are forever being squeezed, technology is seen as the way to improve business results in real-time. Using multiple technology platforms, a plethora of corporate culture measurement and assessment firms have recently emerged.  Some are just technology platforms that allow you to do company-wide or pulse surveys to track employee engagement. Others are technology companies with added “business advisory” in the area of engagement and culture. Many are silicon valley type start-ups funded by Venture Capital funds and playing off the growing interest of the millennial generation in working for a firm with a culture that matches their values and work-life balance requirements. More and more of these culture assessment technology start-ups are being acquired by large global consulting firms to add to their client offerings.

And each one is different.  That is, they each measure different elements of the workplace and call it, the corporate culture. How do you know which are the right culture measures for your business? It feels to me like you are comparing your unique company culture to whatever the “culture planogram” from the technology black box says it should be.

Never have I seen a corporate culture assessment that starts with the company strategy, then develops the issues to evaluate.  I mean, really, a great culture must match both the strategic requirements plus the capabilities of the leaders.  Unless culture is designed to serve (and advance) these two business drivers, then you may have a “nice” set of cultural norms, but it is hard to see how culture can become a real business enabler, let alone a competitive advantage.

He who knows why will always win over those who just know what or how! ~Thomas D. Willhite

And the next problem I have with “Culture in a Box” assessments is that just because you know what the scores are on the various cultural dimensions, you still don’t know WHY they are high or low, nor is there any information in these scores as to how to better align the culture to the business strategy and leadership capabilities.  It’s as if the goal is Automation67smeasurement.

The real goal is building a culture for competitive advantage. An assessment can tell you WHAT is high and low, but it won’t tell you WHY?

To me this trend of easy, technology enabled culture assessments is a new fad, akin to the time when we were beginning to automate business processes and many business found themselves automating broken processes. The process wasn’t effective, but at least it was automated and required less human cost to run!

 Time for a Rethink!

I have a suggestion to those CEOs and business leaders who really believe, like David Novak of Chairman of YUM! Brands and author of Taking People With You, that culture can be a significant competitive business asset (or liability). Let’s all step back and really look at the issue of culture from the standpoint of the business.

If your corporate culture, like brand equity, were on the balance sheet, would it be an asset or a liability? (The answer has been pretty clear for global banking and the US Congress). Why do you have the culture you have, strong or weak? What are the real drivers of YOUR corporate culture?  How would you reshape it to build competitive advantage?

These are the real business questions we should be asking about corporate culture. Not, what is our culture score and how does it compare to our peer group?

If you don’t understand your corporate culture, then you don’t understand your business?  ~John R Childress

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,  Business Books Website

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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