Red Man. Green Man.

Red Man. Green Man.

It’s a cliché that Germans are inflexible, that their processes are inflexible. I, too, believed that for many years. This is a complex topic. It depends on the process, of course, and on the particular step within a process. In some cases, Germans, like any other culture, would say: “At this stage of the process stick to the letter of the law. There is little to no room for interpretation.” In other cases, they would say: “Here we have room to interpret, to make our own decision based on the particulars of the situation.“

Now, when the process is documented in black and white, and in detail, it is in the German culture clear that one needs to stick to the process. When, however, it is generally formulated, is not in detail, then it signals that one has the flexibility to interpret. This has to do with the differences between the written and the spoken word in the German context. The written word has a very high level of binding character. The longer, the more detailed, the more restrictive, the less flexible. And the opposite. The shorter, the less detailed, the more flexible. But this is a topic for another day.

2005. I was on a bus from the center of town in Bonn headed home up on the Venusberg. After about twenty minutes we arrived at my stop. I went to the front of the bus and got off. Since more passengers were getting off and on I knew that the bus had a minute or so before it would continue on. So instead of walking twenty feet along the sidewalk to cross the street where the pedestrian crossing was indicated by the wide white stripes, I decided to save a few seconds by walking directly in front of the bus, leaning around it where the driver was sitting in order to see if any cars were coming.

Responsible, according to the German logic

Normally, cars are not allowed to drive around a bus while it is still loading or unloading passengers. Just to be safe, though, I looked. A car was just beginning to maneuver around the bus. Plenty of time for me to scoot across the street with my long legs. I decided to do it. Barely across the street, I heard a very loud screech. The car had come to a very sudden stop, hitting the brakes hard. I pivoted around immediately only to see a young boy, no older than seven or eight years old, standing just in front of that car, trembling, with no more than a foot or two separating them. He then scurried across the street onto the sidewalk.

Had the driver not reacted so quickly, chances are that boy either would not be with us today, or would be in a wheelchair, or worse. It shook me to the core. Time and again, over the years since, I recall that moment. I shudder. According to the German logic – social logic – I was partly responsible for that boy’s behavior, for choosing to cross the street directly in front of the bus and not at the official crossing point. Now, I am not sure if I would have been legally responsible, had he been hit by the car, but that is not the message here.

German thinking goes like this: “You are an adult. You know the rules. There are good reasons why we have official crossing points, and why they are marked with wide white stripes. So that drivers of cars, buses and trucks know to be careful at those points. And so that pedestrians cross at those points and not simply wherever they want. We want to minimize accidents between vehicles and human beings, especially children. So be a role model for children. If you pass at those official points, that will reinforce what they have been taught by their parents, teachers and the crossing guards who volunteer in the mornings and afternoons near the Kindergartens and elementary schools. If you do not stick to the rules, they will be tempted to do the same, possibly with tragic results.“

“They obey the rules no matter what.“

The American in me thinks that children should be responsible for themselves. Their parents, in the end, have to teach them good judgement, and not too simply do what others do. “Am I responsible for the actions of children of other people?” This, too, is certainly a topic for another day. It’s an important one, but far too complex for this story.

Little red man. Little green man. Many of us non-Germans are familiar with the traffic lights in Germany. The cars look for red, yellow, green. Pedestrians crossing streets look for the red man and the green man. The red man signals: “Don’t cross the street. You might come into contact with a car, bus or truck, and it won’t be terribly pleasant.” The green man signals: “Ok, you’re good. Cross the street.“

Many of us have stood at a street-crossing looking at that little red man and at the same time seeing no car, bus or truck far and wide. We look around and notice that the Germans are waiting, many stiff, still, often a grim look on their face. We, at least we Americans, wonder what in the world are they waiting for. Why aren’t they crossing the street? No cars coming. Many of us conclude: “Oh, they’re Germans. They obey the rules no matter what. How ridiculous.“

“Do you think you’re someone special?“

2005. Up until then, after seventeen years in Germany and I’d say that at I had received a comment barked out at me least a dozen times when I crossed the street while that little red man was still shining bright. “Hey you idiot, are you color blind?” or “Do you think you’re someone special?” or “Don’t you see that there are children standing here?“

That last comment is the key one, it goes to the heart of German social logic. For many years, when the target of such barks, I thought: “Mind your own business. Get a life. Get a job. Who made you a policeman?” In some instances I barked such things back, but in a more colorful language. “Those arrogant, busybody, know-it-all Germans”, I thought, “obeying silly rules like mindless slaves.”

Until that day. That day when a boy of seven was almost struck by a multi-ton chunk of steel, on sleek wheels of rubber gripping the concrete, with the power of well over a hundred horses, and often an impatient driver at the wheel. It was on that day that I understood why Germans in some cases are very inflexible.

2005. My son, Daniel, was also seven years old. Average height. Light as a feather. Tender. His grammar school was around the corner from our house. He needed not cross the street when walking from home to school and back. On another day, in another part of Bonn, however, that seven year old boy could have been mine. And that car could have been another car. Not as quick to stop.

“Are the Germans holding back?”

Americans and Germans decide to integrate processes. Process harmonization is the term used.  A common experience.

First look at and become familiar with the other side’s processes, procedures, etc. The Americans hand over their binders. Many of them. Long. Detailed. The Germans hand over theirs. Not as many. Not as long. Not as detailed. The Americans wonder where the rest is. “Are the Germans holding back? Not revealing? Playing politics?“

Another misperception. Not as many. Not as long. Not as detailed. In fact. The reason once revealed by a German engineer in the middle of the tension. “We do our best not to write down what we do and how we do it.” And why? “Because if it is written down in a process or a procedure, we are bound to doing it exactly in that way. We want to maintain our freedom and autonomy to choose situationally how we work.“

We Germans protect our knowledge

Is that the only reason? What about protecting your knowledge? He smiles discreetly. Not clever. Not sneaky. But conceding. “Yes. We Germans protect our knowledge as best we can. Not only companies, but also individual employees.” So, if it is documented well, then others can do it, also. Right? „Ja.”

There is a third reason. Who wants to take the time to document how an individual, a department, a division works? Drudgery. By the time all of those activities, all of that work, in all of its complexity has been documented, modifications have already taken place. It’s like painting San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge. Once you’ve completed the job, you have to begin all over again.

Knead the dough this way

I’ve never had any kind of formal professional experience with or training in processes. I studied the liberals arts. History was my major. I’m non-technical. I can barely chang a lightbulb.

When my son, Daniel, was a young I dreaded the Christmas gifts we gave to him, the toys which needed to be put together, and then explained. At one Christmas I mentioned this to my mother. She laughed and said that my father was the same. I felt relief. I’m not as bad a father as I had feared. For my father was very capable man, more capable than I will ever be. And that’s ok.

The technical world never quite caught my interest. The natural world, though. Gazing at the stars during a warm, clear summer night in suburban Philadelphia in the 1970s. Climbing trees. Jumping in and out of streams. Running with the wind. Racing on paths through the woods on my bike. Jumping waves during the summer at the Jersey Shore. Smelling and feeling the freshly cut grass on the football field, as a twelve year old, on a Saturday morning during the last days of Indian Summer.

It’s all still very much in me. Yet, little to no interest in how it all came to be, how it works, how it continues to develop. Even though it is our world. We live in it. Technik – the technical world – what man creates, is of even less interest to me.

Processes are mission critical in the technical world. When large numbers of people are involved, when the work is complex in nature, when many steps need to be taken to get the job done, coordination is essential. Well thought through processes guaranty uniformity, quality, efficiency. That is the logic, at least.

It wasn’t until I began supporting Americans and Germans with their integration that I began thinking about processes. For who in their everyday lives invests time in thinking about how they do what they do in concrete steps?

Usually we focus on the results, the outcomes, of what we do. We think more about people, our interactions, our conflicts, than about work steps. It’s people who make our lives either easier or more difficult. So we think.

The less mechanical-mechanistic an activity is, the less process-driven (or -influenced) it is. People don’t behave like machines, not like objects. People have been neither created nor programmed by people.

In many of my management seminars I ask the German and American participants which factors are critical to the success of their companies. I can see them now in my mind’s eye. In breakout groups with their flipcharts. The Germans in one corner of the room, the Americans in the other.

It’s early Spring. We’re in a small town southwest of Nuremberg. A lovely little village with a stream running through it. Or seminar location no more than 100 meters from the town square. Everywhere evidences of German history, of the Middle Ages. I’m in my element.

Americans and Germans of today, working together, hoping to combine their inherent strengths as two cultures, in order to succeed. My job is limited, but focussed and not unimportant: to support them in their dialogue. To initiate, nudge, even jolt that dialogue. To formulate the questions. Questions which guide, steer, lead us in our imagination.

I walk over to the Germans. As always they’re deep in discussion. Deep dive. The way the Germans are. Success Factor #1 People. #2 Processes. Then innovation, quality, financial stability, etc.

And the Americans? “Processes” are nowhere to be seen on their flipcharts. Not mentioned. In other words, process is not a success factor. Instead they’ve written down: leadership, market knowledge, customer relationship management, speed, financial engineering, flexibility, product portfolio.

These folks – Germans and Americans – clearly differ. In fact, greatly differ. And, I believe that Germans cite people as the top success factor for reasons of political correctness. 

I suspect that if it were acceptable in German society – and in German labor law – they would not put people ahead of processes but the other way around. That sounds rather harsh. The German economy is, however, technical. They produce physical products. Mechanical engineering. The Germans build machines. Machines which other companies use in order to make products for end users.

So often I hear it in their discussions. I listen in. Germans and processes. Concrete. Focused. Penetrating. Discussing time and again the how. They don’t focus on the results but moreso on what needs to be done in order to reach those results. It’s all about how they apply their craftsmanship.

It’s winter. Christmas-time. I’m at one of the German Middle Ages Christmas markets. The guilds have their stands: smith, tanner, potterer, candle-maker, baker. They’re family names, too. Smith. Tanner. Potter. Baker. Shoemaker. Nomen est omen. Name is omen.

They are what they do. What they do is who they are. I and the other visitors stand there transfixed. It’s cold, windy, raw. The guildsfolk are dressed up as they would have been back then, centuries ago. They speak an antiquated German. Thou instead of you. Seeth instead of see. The stalls of the craftsmen are warm, however, due either to their fires or the psychological sense of security their craft gives them, and us.

The work, their craft, our work gives us stability, security, a job to do, a place to be. Like the others, I look with fascination at the face and the hands of the craftsman. The simplicity. Calm. Almost reflective. To be one with one’s work. A deeper calm. A part of, at one, with the world. An integral part. Geborgen: safe, secure, sheltered. 

The eyes and hands of the crafstman, the Meister, perfectly coordinated, in agreement. The steps of the process centuries-old: tested, improved, tested, improved, taught, learned, tested, improved. It becomes a part of a people’s flesh and blood. Becomes a part of their seeing, sensing, doing.

„If it is worth doing, it is worth doing right“, my mother would say time and again. Maybe the many unsoliticed pieces of advice the Germans have given me over the years were not that bad after all. Maybe they’re not the chronic know-it-alls, we Americans think they are. Maybe that’s just being German. 

Don’t hold the hammer like that way, but like this. That’s not the way you knead the dough, but like this. Work the leather like this to make it smoother. Success in Germany means to do things in a certain way, and not in another way. All this so that the customer says: “Yes, that’s the way it should be done. That’s the right way to do it.”

Get abstract vs. Get imbedded

A few years back I interviewed an American expert on processes. He works in a German multinational company with a very large presence in the U.S. He and his German colleagues had been working for months on aligning their processes.

The Germans wanted very much to harmonize the processes. “harmonize” is a dirty word for the Americans. It conjures up scenes of horror. They were making very little progress. On the contrary, they were bickering. And how did the American process guy respond to my question about deductive or inductive? “What is this a university seminar in philosophy?”

He then explained. As the process expert in the organization he stays in close contact with those colleagues who move the business forward, those in the “engine room.” He knows their world, their problems, what’s going on. He accompanies, observes, asks questions, listens. Then he reflects, proposes, presents, discusses. Modifying existing processes, or introducing entirely new ones, is based on knowledge and understanding of the situation “on the ground.”

The collaboration between the doers and the process expert is close and integrated. Process people need to know the business, the key people, and the work, before they can address how the work is done.

As an American, I understand this. But, isn’t it critical that the process person take a step back, get some distance, in order to understand and analyze it all? Isn’t abstraction – getting abstract – the prerequisite for solid analysis?

Could it be that getting abstract is so self-stated in the German context, that they neglect to explain to their American colleagues that they also do their homework, that they also do the field work, interviewing and understanding those who do the work day in and day out?

I suspect that the German colleagues present their results – modified or new processes – straight from the process laboratory so to speak, after already having gotten abstract on the key factors – let’s call them principles.

This German approach implies – therefore understood by all involved – that there is a natural, and healthy, tension between getting into the details of how the work is done, and gaining enough distance from them in order to understand them. 

The logic is: “The deeper I go into the details, or get pulled into the details, the more difficult it will be to recognize the drivers, the key factors, the patterns. I need distance. I need my laboratory.”

If the German approach to processes is difficult for Americans to grasp, and therefore accept, what makes it even more difficult is their impression that their German colleagues do not understand the American market, how Americans do business. They see processes coming from the German process lab which don’t work in the U.S., that can potentially damage the business.

That big stick is wielded by Americans often and swiftly: “You folks don’t know our market, how we work, what it means to be successful here. You failed here in the U.S. with your German approach. That’s why you acquired us. So please don’t make changes to our processes, don’t introduce any new processes, without first speaking with us and then allowing us to adapt what you propose to our situation!”

„No taxation without representation!“ That was one of the battle cries of the American colonists. They revolted. The British, a world power then, were defeated. The United States of America was formed.

Process Lab

Recently I interviewed an American process expert working in a global German company with a very significant presence in the U.S. He and his colleagues have been working for quite some time to integrate the processes on both sides of the Atlantic.

The term used is „harmonisieren“ or „harmonize“, which for many Americans had become the equivalent of a four-letter word. They have made little progress. Folks continue to disagree. When I asked about whether American processes were the result of deductive or inductive thinking, he looked at me as if saying: „What kind of question is that? Are we in an Introductin to Philosophy class at some university?“

Instead he said, he does his best to remain in close contact with his colleagues who make the business go: their world, problems, effects, observing, asking questions, listening carefully. He then reflects, analyzes, suggests, discusses. He only recommends changes to processes, especially to the key ones, if they are based on a solid understanding of how the work is done, on reality, after having been „on the ground“ with the people who use the processes.

Abstraction as a requirement for understanding

He collaborates very closely with the people whose work he is analyzing. Process experts, he says, have to understand the business, the people involved, and the workflow before they can engage in a discussion about whether a process can and should be modified.

As an American I understand this. But, I think, is it not essential to then separate yourself from that which you have observed and studied, in order to truly understand it? Isn‘t abstraction a requirement for understanding?

Could it be that the German process experts often forget to inform their American colleagues that they, too, get into the details of the processes they review? Are they misperceived by the American side as being too abstract, of not „getting their hands dirty“, not digging into the details?

Tension between depth and distance 

I suspect that the German colleagues present the results of their process analysis „right out of their process laboratory“, where they get abstract, but after having studied the details. Perhaps they do not get into the details as much as their American counterparts, who embed themselves in the processes.

Germans are reluctant to embed themselves based on a fear that they will lose perspective, lose Überblick (overview), not be able to recognize patterns. In their process lab they have the peace and quiet to reflect on, to understand what they have observed and studied.

The big stick

Making acceptance of German processes in the U.S. even more difficult is the impression many Americans have that their German colleagues do not understand the U.S. market. They see in many German processes a threat to their business: „Their processes won‘t work here. They‘ll ruin our business.“

It‘s the big stick which many Americans use to beat back the importation of German processes, or even the partial integration of American and German processes. In some situations, where the American organization had been an independent company bought by a German one, one can hear Americans say: „You don‘t know our customers, how we work, what it takes to be successful here. You failed in the U.S., that‘s why you bought us. So please, no processes from Germany, at least not without first discussing with us how to modify them so that they help more than harm.“

Deductive. Inductive. Who cares?

Maybe I, as an American, like in any culture, have blinders on. Maybe, despite after more than twenty-five years in Germany, I still have a national-cultural blindspot.

Perhaps we in the U.S. are just as interested in norms and standards as in Germany. We seek them out, want them, want to force them onto reality, even onto other people. But I don’t think we do. 

Even if so, not as much as the Germans do. Perhaps the “rich and powerful” in the U.S. force their norms and standards on the “common people” in such a clever way that they don’t even notice it.

I do notice, however, time and again, in discussions with many Americans how much they resist gaining distance, separating themselves from a given situation, in order to get abstract, to recognize patterns, deeper lying drivers, even principles which are at play. 

They react to my questions as if they did not quite understand them, or never considered such questions, or wonder why in the world I would even ask them.

At first I thought “Ok, they simply don’t understand me intellectually” or “They clearly have never thought about these things before” or “Hmm, they have so little experience working with another culture that they have never made the contrast.” 

Maybe it’s something else. Maybe the Americans I have been speaking to think: “What strange questions. So theoretical. So far away from the situation on the ground, from reality.”

I think Americans quickly and rather matter of fact say to themselves – or to me – “Deductive. Inductive. Who cares? We’re in business to make money. And we do that by meeting the needs of our customers.”

They are saying in order words, our processes – how we do the work – aren’t deduced vertically from some principles. They are rooted in customer needs, in the free market, in competition with other companies. 

Everything we do – the what and the how – is oriented on our customers. The overarching fact – the reality of things – is the dynamic between customer and supplier. The market – all of those interactions – has the say, and not some principles floating up in the clouds.

“That’s not the way one does that.”

„So macht man das nicht“ – that’s not the way one does that. „Wir machen es nicht so“ – that’s not the way we do it. „Das ist nicht richtig so“ – that’s not right. „Das ist falsch, wie Sie es machen“ – you’re doing that wrong. „Ach, Sie gehen so amerikanisch vor“ – ach, you’re taking such an American approach. These sentences I’ve heard many times. Of course, it could have been that I did most things in the wrong way.

So many times I have had the impression that in the German context there is the right way to do something and the wrong way. Implied in such thinking is that there is only one truly right way. All other ways are wrong.

I don’t understand much philosophy, but my impression is that Germans develop their ways of doing things deductively, from generally accepted principles. Kant, Hegel, and all of those great German philosophers, wanted to explain human existence – break the code, so to speak – so that people (individuals) know what to think and what to do.

They put together systems which are incredibly complex, all-encompassing, which explain all sorts of human interactions and interconnections. Rather German: complicated, hardly understandable, nonetheless intricate, impressive, somehow wonderful. Yet, more than somewhat abstract, distanced from everyday experience.

Not egotistical, much more collectivistic

The German “that’s not how one does it” comes from above, from on high, not dictated downwards, but more as if it were simply a given, based on some irrefutable logic. The tone of the statement is always as if there was really nothing, or at the most very little, to discuss. 

Not “I want it done in this way” or “I know best how this should be done.” Not stubborness, obstinance or ignorance or egotism. Those are not German character traits. Quite the contrary the Germans are very open-minded people in many ways. Ignorant? No chance, instead intelligent, well-informed, intellectually very curious. And not egotistical, instead far more collectivistic.

I cannot explain it. It’s puzzling, enigmatic, mysterious. Perhaps Germans think that in any given situation there can be only one truly optimal way to do something, and therefore „bevor ich Deinen Weg ernsthaft in Betracht ziehe, sage ich, unser Weg ist der richtige, oder eher der richtige” – before I seriously consider your approach, I say that our approach is the right one, or more or less the right one.

“Wurschteln vor sich hin“

Many Germans note, and sometimes complain, that Americans don‘t seem to take internal processes seriously enough. They‘re surprised to discover that for many Americans processes simply aren‘t a high priority. Americans „wurschteln vor sich hin“, which loosely translates into they „get the job done some way or another.“ The processes they do follow are neither well thought out, nor consistent nor particularly efficient.

From the German perspective, processes in the American business context are not used effectively enough as a management instrument. They wonder how complex companies can be managed if not with the help of processes.

A German engineer was in the U.S. as a long-term delegate. A capable guy, from Berlin, intelligent, focused, big fan of the Berlin soccer club Hertha BSC. And an open, honest person. We met just by coincidence. I was in town doing management training.

I asked how he was doing, what his first impressions were. He had been in the U.S. less than six months. „The processes here are a catastrophe. There really aren‘t any. A lot has been documented. The book cases are full of binders about processes and procedures. But they aren‘t lived in a consistent way. We‘re trying to clean it all up, put some system to it.“

Not results, but value of results

Such statements aren‘t unique. Germans sense time and again that Americans just don‘t put enough effort into reflecting on how they do the work. Germans often ask, but don‘t get a clear, black and white answer. Americans, from their German point of view, haven‘t mastered their craft. They don‘t reflect and analyze enough.

I think back on my initial sales calls within a very large German global company. It was in 2000, after having transitioned from the German Bundestag back into the business world. Sitting across from German managers I‘m asked to describe exactly what I do, and most importantly, how I do it.

Less so about the final results or the value of those results, more about: „Herr Magee, how do you proceed? What‘s the process step-by-step? Background interviews. Workshop design. Workshop execution. What are the topics? How do you address them? In what sequence? Why?“ Question after question.

What via How

The focus was on my method, on my work process. The discussions were exhausting, penetrating, analytical. The Germans gave very little feedback. But it wasn‘t uncomfortable or unfriendly. It was polite, respectful, almost caring about getting it right. The Germans want to do the right thing. Stated another way, do the thing in the right way.

Perhaps it had to do with the fact that my approach is for many new, different, a bit foreign. Perhaps in order to put my approach to work, folks need to first understand it, the what and the why.

What is how

It was a decade ago, but I can remember the scene as if it were last week. A workshop for a German multinational with a large and critical presence in the U.S. The participants were Germans and Americans. Two full days, in a seminar hotel, away from phones, computers, all the action.

An American colleague stood at the front presenting his breakout groups results. An interesting guy, mid-30s, average height, shaved head, wiry, glasses, super intensive eyes, especially when he speaks, almost a bit manic. In the heat of discussion you never knew if would pounce on you like a cat or suddenly break into a broad smile, sink into his chair tossing his head back, laughing loudly.

I can‘t remember what exactly the topic was. Not important. But his German colleagues saw things differently. They had presented before him. Their flipcharts hung on the wall. He – the cat – responded to each and every one of their questions, doing his best to persuade them of his point of view. Again and again he stressed „we need to orient ourselves clearly on the needs of our customers. If you folks (he meant his German colleagues) would simply understand that, things would go much better on this project.“

In fact, somewhere on each of his flipcharts he stated this point: „listen to customers“ or „meet needs“ or „respond to concerns.“ When he then, during his presentation, made this point for the fifth or sixth time, a German colleague erupted. A similar kind of guy. Average height, perhaps a bit shorter. Slender. Discreetly expressive, kind of like a Jazz musician who while playing thinks hard about what notes to play, all the while maintaining a totally relaxed demeanor. Focused, intense, but relaxed. You don‘t see that combination too often in Germany.

The question is how we do it, how we actually do the work!“

This guy had lived and worked in the U.S. before, for many years. He had a healthy, balanced, fair relationship as a German with the U.S., its people and culture. Both of these guys – catman and jazzguy – were friends, too, interacting on a daily basis across the Atlantic.

Jazzguy looked at his American friend, smiled, grabbed his own head with both hands, then said: „Catman, just because you and your American colleagues write on all your flipcharts, and just because you state again and again, that we have to orient ourselves on the needs of the customer, does not mean that you Americans actually do it! And just because we Germans don‘t write this on all of our flipcharts, and don‘t state it over and over again, doesn‘t mean that we Germans don‘t do it!“

Jazzman did not state this in a mean way. On the contrary, he was smiling sincerely the entire time. His message was: „Catman, we don‘t need to waste time discussing the goal, which is to serve the customer. That is obvious, it is self-stated in all that we do, including what we are doing here. The question is how we do it, how we actually do the work!“

Jazzman simply wanted to get deeper into what it means to serve the customer. Again, I do not think that Americans are less intelligent than Germans. Maybe a different kind of intelligence, a different approach to doing things intelligently. But the Jazzman’s message was very insightful.

And I have so often experienced this here in Germany, with the Germans. They enter into dialogue with each other, analyzing important, fascinating topics, always asking what, who, why, but friendly, diplomatic (most of the time), seeking the truth, together. Their economy is very strong, which is hardly possible without serving customers.

And his American colleagues, including Catman, understood his intentions in this way. And they understood the message in his statement: Das Was ist das Wie, the what is the how. The goal is defined for the most part by how you try to reach it, the path you take to it.

“It takes all kinds of people“

The topic is process, or process philosophy. What role does time play? Do Germans and Americans have the same understanding of long- , mid- and short-term? A rhetorical question. No need to think long about it. The differences are obvious in so many areas.

Wasn‘t it Herr Wiedeking, the Vorstandsvorsitzender (not CEO) of Porsche, a few years back who suprised the financial world by stating that Porsche would supply their numbers just twice a year, making a clear statement about short-term thinking?

Aren‘t the two cultures of different ages in general? Back when the so-called Indians (the indigenous peoples of North America) were saving the first generations of European settlers to the „New World“ from starvation the Germans had a centuries-old history.

The speed in the U.S. is faster

In a previous story we discuss the older, deeper-seated German historical consiousness. The Germans think in longer time stretches than Americans, which can be both a strength and a weakness. The terms Permanenz and permanence have different meanings. Think about how often Americans pick up and move within the U.S., buy and sell houses. How often they identify, evaluate and engage business partners such as suppliers, only to disengage them just as quickly.

The speed at which Americans make acquaintenances and friends (meet, get to know, befriend) is much faster than in Germany. Or think of the financial world again. To make an investment, then hold or sell is not the same as in the U.S. The clocks aren‘t the same. Long-term in the U.S. is mid-term in Germany. Mid- is short-term. American short-term doesn‘t even exist in Germany.

In the American business culture it is almost always better to make a suboptimal decision quickly than to make an optimal decision late or too late. Suboptimal, but timely, decisions can be corrected or improved upon in time. Usually.

Combine inherent strengths

Not long ago I was executing a seminar at a location in Germany for a German client. It was in the Lichthof (atrium) of a beautiful building erected at the turn of the 18th to the 19th century. Big, open space. Very high ceiling made of glass. Sunlight shining in. Inspiring. During the session on decision making a German manager was walking by, one who had done a long-term (three years) in the U.S.

He stopped, listened, saw the sceptical expressions on faces of his German colleagues and walked over and stood next to me (we had worked together on a few projects), then said to the group: „It‘s really not that complicated. The Americans make decisions quickly, often too quickly. So what? The bad decisions they revise just as quickly. That doesn‘t bother anyone in the least. It‘s nothing to be embarrassed about. We should be able to do that, too.“ Some nodded in agreement. Others just shook their heads in dismay.

My goal is not to make Americans out of Germans or the other way around. It wouldn‘t work anyway. And it would be rather dumb. The world needs Germans, their way of thinking, their character traits. The world also needs Americans, their ways of thinking and their character traits. Our goal is to understand the inherent strengths of the two peoples, in order to combine them.

The first step is, however, to identify and understand them, in each of their respective national cultural contexts. Perhaps there is a step even prior to that: to accept the fact that there are such things as national cultural characteristics (yes, traits). German, American, French, Mexican, Chinese, Brasilian and so on and so forth. 

Just as there are in Bavarians, Franks, Rhinelanders, as well as Hamburgers, Brandenburgers, Saxons and Anhaltiner. And let‘s not forget the Berliners with their Berliner Schnautze. As my mother would say: „It takes all kinds of people to make the world go around“.