Workshop Breakout – 1

Systematic thinking is one of the strongest of German character traits. It‘s a red thread woven in and through all of the topics CI addresses.

I think of the many Germans in my seminars and workshops. I observe their tendency time and again. I separate the Americans and the Germans into separate breakout groups, pass out their assignments. They have an hour and a half to think, discuss and prepare their presentation on flip-charts, after which they give their presentations and discuss.

The breakout. What do the Germans invariably do? They get very quiet, focused, read the assignment carefully, ask me clarification questions. No detail is unimportant. After they have taken whatever amount of time is needed to read and reflect, they begin to discuss among themselves: respectful, quiet, their body language still. They listen attentively to each other, seldom interrupt. I observe, listen in, stand nearby in case they need help.

Germans analyze from 30k foot perspective

Even though I know how the Germans will proceed, it surprises me, nonetheless. It is foreign to me. It impresses and fascinates me still. The atmosphere in their breakout groups is like a graduate- or Ph.D.-level seminar at an elite university. It could be either in the natural sciences or in the humanities. Or perhaps business students analyzing a case study or mathematicians attacking a problem cracked centuries ago.

Maybe they’re students of theology or history studying the political ramifications of Martin Luther and the 97 theses he nailed to the door of the church in Witterberg in 1517. Perhaps they’re psychology students working on a particularly complex patient to be handled a day later.

The scenario is unimportant, the approach taken by the Germans is always the same. First they get (common) clarity on the case study I have given to them. Then they define the key terms. The scope is then discussed. After that they address approach and method. Then they finally get to the substance.

Isn’t that the case in so many situations in Germany? Analyze the topic from the so-called thirty thousand foot perspective. Identify the key factors in play. Pay attention especially to the interdependencies, the mutual influences. Then slowly but surely, carefully and focused, address the substance.

Like in early versions of Google Earth after one has typed in the address. You start out way up in space. See the Earth as a planet, then the continents. The globe rotates a bit. You recognize immediately if you are zooming down in the right direction. You go further down, stopping and starting as you wish, to get oriented. It’s just a matter of clicks, moving in and directly, north south east or west. Constantly seeing things from different perspectives.

Not without problems, not without mistakes

I imagine, as a metaphor, how much Germans would like to alter the code within Google in order to determine how quickly it zooms. They would slow it down, I suspect, whereas Americans, again metaphorically speaking, would not be interested in that in the least, instead switching to another website while Google completed the zoom-in.

I think of the English word circumspection, from Latin circum + specere via French into the English of the 15th Century: to look around, be cautious, to consider all circumstances and possible consequences, to be prudent. I see my German seminar participants in their work group with their handouts. They’re careful. Want to do things right, and not just avoid making mistakes.

Do things right, what is right, for themselves and their colleagues. Remember, we‘re talking about two of the most capable peoples on this planet, the German people and the American people. Both have demonstrated that their approaches to solving the fundamental challenges to any society work. Not without problems, not without mistakes, but they work, and work well.

Doing alters, a given situation

And some of their mistakes were serious, gravierend (grave). Mistakes made by both sides, not just by the one. Both peoples want to do things right, and to do the right thing. Verantwortungsvoll. Verantwortung – responsibility + voll, full. Which of the respective approaches is better, more appropriate, superior, is not our topic here. Such questions can only be based on very concrete and specific situations. Even in such, it is difficult to answer the question in a definitive way.

The Germans focus on the consequences of their decisions. They think several steps ahead. They try to anticipate if you wiggle in one area where it will waggle in another. They are well aware that decisions lead to action. Things are set in motion. Doing creates, or at least alters, a given situation (reality), and not always in a positive way.

Inward oriented

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.

The Big Meeting

An attempt to cure all ills, is the impression many Americans get of German processes. From their perspective, Germans try to apply processes in areas where only common sense and good judgement work. „Processes can‘t substitute for people“ is a common statement one hears from Americans in German companies. Much of what people in companies do simply cannot be objectified. Continuous process modification, from the American perspective, produces far more internal agitation than it does any kind of value.

Frustration was high, very high. It was about the bid process. A German multinational with a large presence in the United States. Plant construction. Big plants. Complex. Customers in a multitude of countries. The bid process, too, is complex. All of the key topics come together: market, customers, product portfolio, price, competition, etc. And the key disciplines come together: engineering, supply chain, project management, finance, risk, etc.

An offering is formulated. If they get the contract, the project runs over several years. Tremendous depth of detail. If the complexity is not grasped, nothing but problems during the entire project. Lose a lot of money. If the complexity is understood, the project is executable. Earn lots of money.

No good decision without a good decision making process

There is a process for bidding on projects. The problem is, the processes on either side of the Atlantic look different. From my point of view, no surprise. Americans and Germans have different approaches to the topics, to the disciplines. At its core, the bid process is a decision making process. And as such it is only to a certain degree technical. The baseline analysis is done. Engineers. Engineering methods. IT tools. The results: numbers. Processes are critical here. Science does its work.

But after that it‘s all about judgement. Experience, intuition, common sense. Everything comes together in the big meeting. The boss with her direct reports, the heads of the disciplines. Interdisciplinary, as they say. They discuss intensely, long, often in great detail, open, focused. Key parameters are looked at from every possible angle. The boss drills down with her questions. The experts respond to the best of their ability, and based on their calculations.

Far more than a brainstorm, they look for ways to handle the tough questions. Back and forth, up and around, combine, separate. More art than science. Bids are formulated not generated. The big meeting is not a factory. No place for a process here. The task is far too complex.

And so it went for years, actually generations. It‘s how Americans make decisions. The big meeting. I had heard about it. Then I was allowed to sit in, like a fly on the wall. German headquarters wanted to change the bidding process. Make it more German. Process harmonization. The Americans were not amused. The big meeting.

It was fascinating. It went as I had anticipated. I felt at home, understood its inner logic. The German colleagues do it differently, much differently. They move along a process, from beginning to end. No big meeting. The topics are addressed in a crisp, brief, focused manner, like knocking off the topics in a routine meeting. Not all that much interaction among the participants. Everything based on facts and analysis, and the process. Objectified in the spirit of: „Good decisions are the result of good decision making processes.“

“Decision Making Philosophy“?

Is it even possible to translate into English the German word Entscheidungsverständnis? Decision making philosophy, is what most Americans would say. But, that’s puffy, cloudy. Americans us the term ‘philosophy’ often to mean ‘way of thinking’.

Literal, and more exact, would be ‘understanding of the decision to be made’, from Entscheidung, decision + verständnis, understanding of. The verbs are entscheiden, to decide, and verstehen, to understand. Only very few Americans, however, would use that kind of formulation, ‘understanding of the decision to be made’.

In any case, the American colleagues in the breakout (group work in a management seminar) did not ask themselves about their Entscheidungsverständnis. Instead, they rather quickly defined what kind of used car they were looking for (the question posed to them in the exercise). There were three, perhaps four key factors. That was enough. They moved on immediately to the next assignment in the exercise.

Germans believe that the best path to an optimal decision is first of all to nicht vom Zaun brechen, which is translated literally into “not break out or through the fence”, meaning to think first, then decide, then act. To reflect. Because decisions mean change, they are inherently involve risk. A good Entscheidungsverständnis minimizes risk. It should not be a surprise, therefore, that Americans often give Germans the impression that they tend to move forward too aggressively, impetuously, forcefully.

Americans can come across as not having understood, much less thought through, the complexity of the situation. Especially when it comes to decisions which have far-reaching consequences, the aggressive, impetuous and forceful American approach unsettles their German colleagues. They fear that the Americans are actions are naive, even irresponsible.

Mit dem Kopf durch die Wand – literally with the head through the wall, or forcing things – is how Germans can see Americans. Objectively this is the case quite often. Subjectively certainly very often. The Americans in the breakout group write their flip-charts quickly, but just as quickly tear them down and rewrite or toss them into the corner. Americans like to decide and move fast, change situations and create new ones. They take the initiative in order to ‘stay ahead of the power curve’, to ‘set the agenda’.

Difficult, complex and controversial events

But, is this unfamiliar to the Germans? Haven’t they had their own experiences with the advantages and disadvantages of such national cultural character traits? The German people has a highly developed historical consciousness. Many of their experiences as a people were painful, have made a deep impression on them. 

When the Germans raise their Zeigefinger, their index finger pointing out something important (yes, often in a know-it-all way) it is in most cases because they do know better (at least for themselves, from their perspective). At a minimum they see a situation which they have experienced themselves. And as Germans they are seldom reluctant to point out these (their) lessons to other people.

I had hardly gotten into a conversation with a good German friend of mine. We were talking about everyday topics, nothing terribly deep. A friend of his joined us, a journalist, a women he had known for many years. She – let’s call her Beate – switched the topics of the conversation to politics, her area of focus. Wasting no time she brought up the most difficult, complex and controversial events. Back then I was a member of the professional staff of the Christian Democrats in the Bundestag, the majority party under then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Beate had returned from Southern Africa just a few months before. I had not known her or of her. In the years after that conversation I would see her in television, hear her on the radio, read her articles in newspapers. Very intelligent. Very well-informed. Very active mind.

I was tired. It had been a long week. The initial topics of my chat with my friend were light, casual, pleasant. Beate wanted, however, to get serious. She started off describing the monumental mistakes the Clinton administration had made in Somalia. With her experience in Africa, and in Somalia, it was clear that the American approach would be a total failure.

I tried to steer the conversation back to the lighter topics. Beate just could not let go, however. Puffing away at her cigarettes I was engulfed in smoke and getting dizzy. She fired question after question at me about American foreign policy. Time and again I sent signals communicating: “Please, not now, another day. We don’t even know each other. Do I have to answer personally for my country’s actions abroad?” Beate made everything so complex. She was giving me a headache. It was a very unpleasant evening.

A factory in the Eastern part of Westphalia

I think of my fellow American, the soldier, dead and dragged by a rope naked through the streets of Mogadischu, his body mocked, derided and spat upon by the population. I think of his parents, his siblings and friends, especially of his mother. I think no less sadly of the man (the picture of him) in the second Iraq War, a father carrying on each should the bodies of his dead boys, each around five years old. We see him from behind.

Those little boys can’t move, they won’t ever move. I imagine their father’s heart as he heaves his boys on his shoulders, his heart as he lays them in simple wooden boxes, then lowers those boxes into the earth, his heart when he then goes home. He’ll never hear their voices again. My son, Daniel, was nine years old back then. Evenings, after dinner, he climbs up on my back. Piggyback we call it in English. I carry him up the stairs. Abendroutine, evening routine. Pajamas. Brush teeth. Wash face. Hop in bed. I read to him. Abendroutine here in Bonn, Germany. A German boy with an American father. Safe, secure, happy and healthy.

I see in my mind’s eye a factory somewhere in the Eastern part of Westphalia. The niece of my German wife’s grandfather. He was from Herford, not far from Hanover, a pilot in the Luftwaffe. Early in the Second World War in France, a part of the occupation forces. Then in the East, fighting the Russians. Prisoner of war. He returned to Germany in 1949, a broken man. My wife’s grandmother said of her husband that he had believed in German victory up until the very end. 

She told the story only once of his niece. She must have worked in an armaments factory. I never asked. Tears worked their way carefully down her cheeks as she talked, her eyes fixed on a far-off point. Allied bombing one day. Direct hits. The mother of the young woman, the sister-in-law of my German wife’s grandmother, ran to the factory. Everything destroyed. She found her daughter. Her tender, youthful body ripped open by a steal beam.

Yes, it was a very unpleasant evening with Beate, but primarily because we’re far more different than we realize. In fact she is a very nice, intelligent, hard-working German journalist, who, like all of us, would like the world to be different, better. A woman who adopted a young African girl and is raising her alone. Beate is a fighter for the right cause. And there are others, like the late Peter Scholl-Latour, who in the months leading up the Second Iraq War was in the German media doing his best to warn of its risks: explaining, seeking, describing, questioning. Out of concern.

Long, detailed discussions about decision-making

Scholl-Latour was a prolific journalist and author about the Middle East. His early years, however, were spent first fighting in the Indochina (Vietnam) war, then covering it as a journalist when the U.S. had entered it in a serious way. Not a know-it-all but a concerned German, whose fears were based on experience and knowledge. One who is trying to say to his friends (to Americans): “Dear Friend, don’t do it. Think about what you learned forty years ago. Don’t repeat that mistake, please.”

To be called naive in the German context is very serious. It means a significant deficit in intelligence. It means not being in touch with reality. Naivité in the U.S. context, however, can be interpreted as positive. Young. Fresh. Optimistic. Full of initiative. Ready to learn. Willing to make decisions. Amerikaner sind wie große Kinder. Americans are like big children. How often I’ve heard this in my years in Germany. I understand how and why Germans make such a statement.

Verzicht. Small skies.

I reflect, try to imagine how it was back then. It is 1944. My mother is fourteen years old. No father at home. Killed in an automobile accident in 1938. My grandmother at the time with seven small children. The oldest was nine. The youngest an infant. My grandmother carrying her eighth child. The coal supplier comes by the house. He informs my grandmother that he can no longer supply her. He demands that she pay the bill. Money was very, very tight. Grandmother is behind in her payments.

It is winter. Unusually cold. My mother is hiding in the corner, hearing for the first time how her mother pleads with the coal supplier to give her more time. He does. My mother has never forgotten that day, that conversation. It put its stamp on her, made a deep impression. Thirty years later, her husband, my father, Frank, would die at the age of forty-four. Heart failure. My mother then, 1974, with six children. His first heart attack was at age thirty-five.

“What does it cost to heat those places?” A question my mother asks spontaneously whenever we drive by oversized houses in suburban Philadelphia. Not just one of those curious questions, but a question of survival. For my mother, back then.

True, not to be compared with the experiences of the German people in terms of limited resources during certain periods of their recent history. Nonetheless, an imprint on my mother, 1944 and the coal-man. A far greater influence on Americans is living in a country of abundance, in many cases over-abundance. Land, natural resources, freedom and opportunity. I’ve never been to the Upper Midwest – Wyoming, the Dakotas, Montana. Big Sky Country it is called. Literally: “Land as far as you can see!”

This must have been what the multitudes of immigrants to America had imagined, as well as the recently-arrived immigrants who moved west from the cities of the East Coast. But not only they, also the Germans. Yes, the Germans, back then. Many generations grew up reading Karl May, the author of best-selling books of fiction about the American West. 

Cowboys and Indians. Germans of today, who travel through the U.S., who live there a few years, who dream of settling in America, see, imagine and experience that abundance. Who in their imagination is not attracted to the idea of no limits?

These days, to have to accept that there are limits, to reorient one’s own thinking, through self-reflection and self-critique, to change deep-seated habits of mind. Who wants to do that? Is able to do that? Painful and disconcerting. Verzicht. To do without. To do with less. To accept limits.

Margins of error

The word ‘decide’ stems from the Latin decidere: to cut off, to make a choice or judgement, to select a course of action. To go in a certain direction. To cut off the other options. 

Margins of error. In comparison to Germans and Germany, America and Americans have had wider margins of error, allowing them to make mistakes without having to pay too high of a price.

America is protected in the East and the West by large oceans. To its northern border are neighbors friendly and very close in terms of national culture. To the south is a neighbor who has never been a threat to the United States. The indigenous (local) population, who Americans mistakenly have called Indians, were either killed in wars or decimated and then forced on to reservations.

As mentioned before, natural resources in the United States are in great supply. The wars in which the U.S. was involved in or started were won, with a few exceptions: Korea, Vietnam, Iraq. America’s economic history is one of continual growth.

Whether in their education, in sports, in the business context Americans are taught, pushed, motivated to move forward, to excel, to set ambitious goals, and to take risks. Whereas the Germans warn den Mund nicht zu voll zu nehmen (literally not to fill up your mouth too much; in English not to bite off more than you can chew), the Americans say: Reach for the stars!

When my son was nine years old he asked me if he one day could become President of the United States. My response, like any other American parent, was: “Of course you can”. During the Obama vs. McCain presidential campaign I learned that the U.S. Constitution requires that the President must be born on American soil. Sadly I had to revise my response to my son. He, an American, was born in Bonn, Germany.

Risk. Margins of error. We Americans have had it good, very good, compared to the Germans. Risk is in the eye of the risk-taker.

“Your bullshit pragmatism!“

“Nicht über den eigenen Tellerrand hinaus zu schauen,” literally to not look beyond the rim of your own plate, is as negative a criticism as having an underdeveloped Problembewusstsein, problem-consciousness. Such people don’t recognize connections, interconnections, and interdependencies (the complexity). They sort of stumble along without fully grasping the broader context within which they do so. They have plenty of facts at hand, and can tell entertaining stories based on their experience, but fundamentally cannot “put two and two together.”

Germans are no fans of anecdotes in general anyway. They consider anecdotes to be uncertified, unauthenticated pseudo-documents, un-proofed by an official body or organization. Anecdotes are subjective, therefore invalid, worthy of being challenged. Germans expect theory which helps objectify facts and numbers, offering a clean method for understanding complexity.

Germans would roll their eyes when confronted in a typical American bookstore by those tall, narrow kiosk-like stands pushing how-to books with titles such as “10 Easy Steps to a Successful Marriage,“ “5 Simple Ways to Become a Millionaire,“ “Start Your Own Company in 3 Weeks,“ “A Successful Family in Ever Way,“ each of them amounting to no more than 150 pages.

“You stupid Americans, with your bullshit pragmatism!”

Germans are capable of being focused and to-the-point. It’s those “easy steps” which make them nervous. Perhaps it’s a part of Anglo-American pragmatism. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with Georg (yes, yet another anecdote). 1982, my very first year in Germany. He was the boyfriend of the daughter in the family I lived with in a small town south of Bonn.

Hardly had I met him and Georg got right down to business. As a junior officer in the Bundeswehr, the German Army, he asked me if Reagan and the U.S. would defend West Germany if the Russians and the Warsaw Pact attacked. I tried to give him a credible response, but was not exactly prepared for that kind of question as a twenty-two year old who had just graduated from college. I was not persuasive. Georg ended the conversation abruptly and in a huff mumbling under his breath, yet audible enough: “Ihr blöden US-Amerikaner mit Eurem scheiß Pragmatismus!”, literally you stupid Americans, with your bullshit pragmatism!

I shrugged my shoulders and continued on my way in life. In the quarter century since then I have thought often about that interaction. It was the thought that pragmatism could be “scheiße.“ To think and act pragmatically was a principle I had never challenged. What could possibly be wrong with pragmatism?


Once Germans have made a commitment they begin immediately doing their part. And because they work independently, including little communication with the other parties to the agreement, it is essential that they have as much information upfront as possible.

Anecdote: Friendly interrogation. I take the train to Bavaria. A meeting with one of Germany’s largest multinational companies. Thusfar they are satisfied with my work. A new contact, high-level engineer, perhaps a new client.

We meet in his office, sit at a round table, drink tea. We talk. His questions are direct, precise, bordering on penetrating. The tone, however, is friendly, probing. Before I realize it an hour has gone by. 

The questions keep coming, one after the other. About my background, methodology, how I execute seminars and specialized workshops. Then about my content, my research approach. What? How? Why?

Question after question, almost like an interrogation. He wants to understand. I become a bit fatigued, but remain fully focused, maintain eye contact, respond as precisely as my German language skills will allow. The meeting is tiring, he keeps me on my toes. At the same time the atmosphere is friendly, respectful, at a high level.

The German manager is above average in height, slender, his eyes sensitive, curious, listening. Not distrustful, skeptical but careful. In the weeks thereafter we would meet several times more. Each talk of lesser intensity. Then the decision. Positive. I went on to serve him and his organization for several years without interruption. Front loading.