The intense German focus on processes unsettles Americans time and again. It limits, cramps their flexibility. In the U.S. processes are seldom viewed as an effective alternative to agility, speed, creativity. Americans believe that the core skills of good management cannot be forced into processes, cannot be performed by processes. For them processes are tools which offer support.
In my early years here in Germany as an American I was put on the defensive when asked about my processes, my approach, how I do my work. Or at least I felt defensive, perhaps because I was not prepared to respond.
Then I went into the opposite direction. When asked about my work and its value for my customers, I would go into great detail about how I do the work, my thought and work processes, and spend too little time explaining the value of it all.
Intensity bangs into bafflement
My first website did little more than simply show my four-step process, in the sense of: „Do you want to know who I am, what I do, what value it could have for you and your company? Just take a look at my methodology.“ As you can imagine, the site did not attract much attention.
Well, you can also imagine what happens when Germans and Americans come together to discuss internal work processes. Intensity bangs into bafflement. Precise questions get imprecise answers. Impatience meets impatience. Each side shaking their heads about the other.
We Americans see long, detailed discussions about processes as a form of German navel-gazing. It‘s all well and good to do some thinking about the how, every now and then, but not too often, and certainly not for too long. The more you spend analyzing internal things, the more quickly you distance yourself from external things, such as the market, customers and their needs, from reality.
Proud but not arrogant
It was a discussion I had with Egon in the summer of 1991. In Bonn. He was married to a classmate of my German wife. Very intelligent guy. Mathematician in the Max Planck Institute. Friendly, courteous, sensitive, analytical. His wife, a linguist, outgoing, lively, funny.
Our conversations were always fascinating. Serious topics. Intellectual substance. We were eating in an Italian restaurant. A warm day with a lovely breeze wafting up from the Rhine River. The windows of the restaurant wide open. The long, black container boats on the Rhine, but also the private boats darting about, all waving their large German flags, black red gold. Germany had become reunited in October the year before. For a brief moment the Germans felt they could show feel, and show, patriotism.
Poets and thinkers
In the summer, especially in the early hours when the sun shines, Bonn has an almost Mediterranean flair. The air is clear, fresh, sweet. The water‘s surface reflects the rays of the sun in a soft, inviting way. If you look across the Rhine into the distance, starting to the North, then pan to the East, then South, you can see the transition from the Lower Rhine (flatland) to the Middle Rhine, to the Seven Mountains, pointing to the south, where the Rhine snakes to and through the towns of Koblenz, Mainz, into the Palatinate, on to Northern Baden, where the river becomes the border between Germany and France.
We discussed German history. I should have noted down what Egon had said. Only some of the details can I recall. But his thesis seemed more than plausible. Time and again over the years the conversation came back to me.
The Germans, Egon said, were in their history always a bit boxed in, geographically, and politically. They turned inward. The land of Dichter und Denker, of poets and thinkers. A land of people who reflect. Whereas the British, French, Dutch, Spanish and the Portugese looked, and went, outward.
They are Seevölker, literally sea peoples, maritime nations. They had overseas colonies, traded across the oceans, became naval powers. Many of their finest, the most talented, looked outward, went out, chased adventure and ventures outside of their countries. In Germany, the best looked inward, worked inward, stayed within.