Systematic Thinkers

Systematic thinking is the foundation of all research. Germany has produced many great thinkers in the natural and social sciences. They are best known for their systematic approach.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was the daughter of German nobility, but decided at an early age to join the Benedictine nuns. She went on to become one of the best educated and wisest of her era, advising secular and religious leaders throughout Europe. Hildegard’s fields of expertise ranged from theology to medicine, music, ethics and cosmology. Her discoveries and insights in the area of plant-based medicines are referred to today.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was one of the leading philosophers of the Enlightenment Age. His Kritik der reinen Vernunft is considered to be the starting point of modern philosophy, creating a new, systematic approach to inquiry. Kant addressed not only the theory of knowledge, but also ethics and aesthetics, the philosophy of religion, law and history, as well as astronomy and the geosciences.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is considered to this day to be the greatest of all German writers. His work encompassed, however, also the natural sciences including botany, optics and the philosophy of color – Farbenlehre.

Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) was a Prussian General and military theorist. His Vom Kriege (On War) a systematic approach to strategy, tactics and the philosophy of war, became the foundation of military thinking in all Western nations. Clausewitz’ writings went beyond how wars are won to address the overall nature and meaning of war in the modern world.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) is renowned as a philosopher, political economist and social critic. Together with Friedrich Engels, Marx analyzed during the height of the industrial revolution the mutual influences and interactions between a society‘s consciousness and its economic system. Although Marxism has proven to fail in practice, it led to what many would consider significant social progress in public education, health care, social legislation. Marx’ writings contributed to the creation of labor unions.

Max Weber (1864-1920) was a German sociologist, legal scholar, and political economist. He is considered a founding father of modern sociology. Weber’s theories influenced greatly the so-called specialty areas of sociology: economics, religion, political power structures.

Karl Rahner (1904-1984) is considered to be the most influential Catholic theologian since Thomas Aquinas. His work opened up Catholic theology to a new and deeper understanding of faith. Rahner’s thinking influenced greatly the Second Vatical Council. Inspired by his studies under Martin Heidegger, Rahner synthesized Catholic theology with the philosophies of the modern era.

Timotheus Höttges

In a May 2015 article Deutsche Telekom CEO Timotheus Höttges was asked what his biggest management mistake had been thusfar in his career. 

Höttges responded that in his days as the head of T-Mobile Germany back at the beginning of the 2000s, he was very motivated and came up with at least one new idea every day of the week. 

He admitted to demanding too much of the managers and employees. In doing so he overwhelmed the entire company. Höttges said that he had learned over the years. Today he focuses only on what has been agreed upon. Even if he has ten other good ideas.

Short. Mid. Long.

Germans think mid- to long-term. Short-term thinking and action is almost always viewed negatively. Germans associate short-term with ungrounded, fleeting, incomplete. When they make decisions they want to know, at least anticipate, what the effect (Auswirkungen) will be in other areas, on other processes, on other colleagues. They strive to understand the mid to long term effects.

Middle High German vrist. Old High German frist: what is current, about to occur; time period in which something should happen; to postpone briefly. Kurz- , mittel- , langfristig means short- , mid- , long-term.


Fragestellung is literally a question formulation. It is the definition of the question to be addressed. Before Germans make a decision – answer a question – they place great effort into first being sure that they have a common understanding of the decision to be made, of the question to be answered.

From the German point of view it is not enough to be capable of making decisions, to answer complex questions intelligently, if you haven’t first defined accurately the decision to be made, the question to be answered.

Germans engage in a discussion upfront about: What is the nature of the decision we are about to make? What are its implications for other areas of our work? Are we addressing the right question? Are we in agreement about what decision we are making and why?

Schmal (narrow): Old High German smal: small, narrow; narrow in width, as seen in profile; little, few, not enough, bare, barren.

Breit (wide): Of greater length in profile; as in size(s), measurements, a certain width; large, stretched; in large measure.

The German word schmal is often used to describe poor performance, low quality, something deficient. An engineer who does delivers poor results is referred to as a Schmalspuringenieur, literally a narrow lane engineer. A Schmalspurforscher is a scientist who has achieved little professionally. Schmalbrüstig – literally small or narrow in the chest – is someone who is unathletic.

Grundsätzlich: Relating to what is foundational; in accordance with a principle, in principle; actual, fundamentally; in general, as a rule.

The German people are serious. They value principles, deep-felt beliefs. Er hat keine Prinzipien. He has no principles, is a very serious criticism in the German context. To have no principles, to have no values, which guide one in their behavior, is considered to be a sign of weak character. Germans tend to have discussions about bottom-line thinking, beliefs, and principles.

The German political parties have their Grundsatzprogramm, their foundational political principles, which are formulated for the long term. The Grundsatzprogramm encompasses their foundational political beliefs, upon which the specifics of their political platform are formulated. Their election campaigns are closely aligned with these ideas. The Grundsatzprogramm is seldom modified. To go against it, to follow a political course which strays from it, invites internal rebuke and sanction.


Overview. The view from an elevated point, from which one can see across an expanse.

Ich habe den Überblick verloren. I have lost overview. Er überblickt die Sache nicht mehr. He no longer has an overview of the situation. These are statements one often hears in Germany. The details, and the kinds of details, have become too great to maintain an understanding of the situation. Germans place high value on Überblick (overview), on understanding a situation as a whole, as a system.

Überblick is especially important in those professions where the details are critical: air traffic controllers, project management, every kind of logistical coordination.

Durchblick: Literally through-view; view, perspective between, through, into a situation; to grasp the interrelations, connections, mutual influences.

Er hat den Durchblick. He has through-view. Er blickt da voll durch. He totally sees through the situation. Blicken Sie durch? Do you have through-view? These are typical sentences in German. Those who “see through” know what they’re talking about, understand both the details and the big picture. A Durchblicker knows a topic through and through and is on the path to becoming a true expert.

Durchblick is expecially important in those professions where a high level of expertise is demanded, such as in the natural sciences, nuclear physics, in the most sophisticated areas of surgery.

Umsicht: Literally view around. Intelligent, goal-oriented awareness of all important factors necessary to make wise, reflected decisions.

The Germans are considered to be people with Umsicht. They avoid unnecessary risk, shy away from situations involving factors which they cannot calculate. “Vorsicht ist die Mutter der Porzellankiste” (Carefulness is the mother of the porcelain) is a well-known German figure of speech. Germans are careful, umsichtig (aware of their surroundings). They take their time, proceed tentatively.

Umsicht is especially important in those areas where mistakes have significant negative effects: airline pilots, train conductors, legislators, and of course medical physicians.


The Germans speak good to very good English. This, however, can lead to them importing English terms literally into German: “to break down” becomes herunterbrechen, as in to break down a complex topic into its component parts.

But just because a term can be literally translated into another language does not mean that the thinking behind that term fits into the other culture’s way of thinking.

In fact, Germans do not consider it helpful to take complexity and break it down (herunterbrechen) into its component parts. They aim to do the opposite, to see particulars in their interrelationships, in their mutual influences. They look for patterns, strive to understand complexity as a whole, as a system. Germans do not break down, instead they tie together.

In this sense, herunterbrechen is a form of corruption, of turning, twisting, convoluting a complex reality. Instead of simplifying complexity, the Germans enter into it, in order to understand it, to work with it as it is.

System – “what holds the world together”

System. Latin systema, Greek sýstēma. A whole made up of many pieces linked together; put together, link, place together; a theoretical scheme.

For Germans the particulars of a system define themselves through their relation to each other. Particulars can only be understand through their relationships, connections, mutual influences. The particular is only significant and understandable as a part of a system. Latin particularis, a part, a minority.

“Do you recognize the system here?” is asked to test whether an event is based on coincidence. Whereas a system explains events as the logical occurrence of individual interactions.

The Germans are inclined to say: Everything has its cause. Everything is linked to everything else. Nothing is coincidence. The world is a huge system. The Germans believe in systems, in an explanation behind all phenomena.

They seek out those systems. As Johann von Goethe stated in Faust: “to understand what at the deepest level holds the world together.“

See below Will Quadflieg and the legendary Gustaf Gründgens – Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg, 1960

No Surprises

Germans like to receive nicely wrapped presents. At the same time they are no fans of surprises. Not even at Christmas or on birthdays. On the contrary, they really do prefer to know in advance what is in the package.

They do their research before they make even everyday purchases. Which product is the right one? Have they had any negative experiences with it? What are the alternatives? How much more or less expensive is the alternative?

This is why the German consumer often asks the salesperson if the product can be returned. They seldom feel sure that what they buy is exactly what they need.

Germans, for example, never plan a vacation without doing intensive research, unless of course they are returning to a well-known destination, which many of them do in order to reduce the risk of disappointment.

85 billion Euros a year, that is the amount German spend on travel – the highest in the world. Nonetheless, they most likely do the most research before deciding. Numerous websites are looked at, comments good and bad are read critically, photos from the vacation destinations compared, maps surveyed, travel guides studied carefully, friends and acquaintances asked.

Then finally the decision is made, the trip is booked. The research has just begun, however. What‘s the use of booking a trip if you don’t plan well what you‘ll do during it? Climate. Transportation. Sightseeing. Shopping. Shop hours. Restaurants and prices. Day-trips. Health care should anyone get sick or injured. Front loading.