No sense of urgency !

“Why is there no sense of urgency in Germany?”


MerriamWebster defines urgent as: calling for immediate attention, pressing. Among its synonyms are: burning, compelling, critical, dire, imperative, acute, immediate, crucial. Among its antonyms are: incidental, low-pressure, minor, negligible, trivial, unimportant, non-threatening, safe, stable.

When it comes to urgency, Americans and Germans can diverge in two fundamental ways:

What is urgent?

A situation which Americans might interpret as requiring urgent action might very well be one in which Germans do not see the urgency. This difference could be based on a few, several or many factors, each of which need then to be clarified between the two parties. A common, but not simple, situation is when a customer demands rapid reaction. Speed.

Because Americans and Germans differ in how they understand what makes for an optimal relationship between two business partners – customer and supplier – an American is far more likely to view a customer request as urgent, especially when that customer communicates their urgency, than a German would view that request.

How fast is responsive?

If Germans and Americans agree, at least to a working degree, that a situation requires urgent action, there are nonetheless differences in how both parties define what is fast, slow or just the right reaction time. We know that the two cultures define differently short- , medium- and long-term. This difference is equally at play when it comes to responding to a matter, problem, request, situation.

In other words, agreement on the urgency of the matter does not guarantee the same reaction times. For Americans it could be within three days (including weekends and holidays), whereas for their German colleagues it could be ten days (not including weekends and holidays).


Another way to look at this is to contrast what in each culture is considered to be haste or hasty action. MerriamWebster define haste as: rapidity of motion, swiftness, rash or headlong action, undue eagerness to act. Among its synonyms are: fastness, fleetness, speed, hurry, quickness, rapidity, rapidness, speediness. Among its antonyms are: slowness, sluggishness.

The Germans are no fans of haste. In fact, hasty action is in their culture often a sign of ill-preparedness, poor planning, acting before thinking. Germans are methodical, careful, thoughtful. They prefer to get whatever they do right the first time. Any kind of rework, and change in direction, they calculate into their original reaction time.

„To turn on a dime“ ― an American figure of speech meaning the ability to change directions quickly, deftly and whenever necessary ― is a quality Germans respect. However, for them it is often a strength necessary primarily because a suboptimal decision has been made.

Shared Logic

It is important to keep in mind that within a well-functioning society ― like the German and the American ― there is a shared logic in those areas which are fundamental to their respective stability, success and future.

A culture‘s, therefore business culture‘s, understanding of urgency is shared by all who interact with each other. Whether a given situation is urgent or not, and if so, to what degree, is defined by a common cultural understanding of what is important (urgent). And that understanding is shared by people on both sides of the transaction: colleague to colleague, team lead to team members, customer and supplier.

In other words, what in the American business context is considered urgent, or very urgent, or extremely urgent, or absolutely asap, might be considered in the German to be less so, or even not at all. As long as the two transactional parties are in synch with eachother, the urgency will be handled properly.

And vice versa. Now, Americans can often be perceived as not responding to the urgency of a situation, „urgency“ in the sense of the problem, which if not addressed, could lead to constant and long-term negative effects. Quality – whether it be in a physical product (craftsmanship) or in work results (competence) – is so critical to Germans, that almost anything related to it is urgent, permanently urgent, day-in and day-out.

Who‘s faster?

Stated simply, but accurately, Americans break down complexity into into its component parts in order to focus on what is essential. This allows for focus, rapid reaction, and calculated risk taking. Sharply delineated decisions – isolate and keep narrow in scope – can be made quickly, and revised just as quickly, depending on immediate outcomes as well as on external factors over which one may have little to no influence. Americans consider flexibility to be one of the most critical success factors of any human endeavor.

In contrast, Germans link decisions together. They then analyse the decision – in reality several decisions – carefully, methodically, taking into consideration many, if not all, influencing factors. Germans think through, then act.

When they do then decide, they remain firm, are not easily pushed off their path, consider external factors, but stay on course. For some they maintain their composure, for others they don‘t recognize when (or are too stubborn) to change course.

Who handles urgent matters more effectively?

Certainly each would claim that they do. And each side has valid arguments. But, in many cases they are comparing apples with oranges, or perhaps more accurately, apples with pears. Americans isolate, analyze pragmatically, move fast, react just as fast, change course as often as is necessary in order „to get the job done.“

Germans connect, analyze deeply and stringently, more slowly, but when they do, they do so on many fronts at the same time. They stick to their course or action, and change only if convincing arguments can be made that their original decision making was flawed.

From the American perspective, the Germans can be terribly slow, plodding, unresponsive, almost incapable (or unwilling, or both) of responding with a sense of urgency. From the German perspective, Americans are often cowboys, „shooting first, then asking questions“, or „going through the wall with their heads“, hasty, impatient, making mistakes left and right and calling it euphemistically „turning on a dime.“

“No, we are customer-centric”

“Here in U.S. the customer is at the center of what we do. Our German colleagues do not think that way. They actually say: ‘You need to stand up to the customer re: what they need and how they should buy from us.’

Our response: ‘No, we are customer-centric. We cannot do that.’ The German response is then: ‘Tell the customer that they should just try our product. They will like it.’

It comes down to who customers want to work with. Coming in cold, calculating, factual, analytical does not work with Americans. Every relationship is personal first.

How can we get our German colleagues to understand this?”

The questioner states:

“Here in U.S. the customer is at the center of what we do. Our German colleagues do not think that way.”

Wait, stop!

Are the Germans not customer-oriented? Seriously. Only eighty million people. Country no bigger than the US-state of Montana. Yet, fourth-largest economy in the world.

Either there are a lot of really dumb customers out there buying stuff from the Germans. Or German products are so great that a lack of customer-orientation does not matter. Or, maybe just maybe, the Germans are customer-oriented.

So, is the American perception wrong that the Germans are not customer-oriented? Or could it be that Americans and Germans define customer-orientation differently? And when we say Americans and Germans we mean also American customers and German customers.

For Germans to serve is to consult. In Germany, both customer and supplier strive for a balanced relationship. In fact, it is considered by both parties to be an obligation and a duty to provide advice, to consult.

Yet, often we here in the U.S. are faced with situations in which the approach taken by our German colleagues leads to an unbalanced relationship.

Their actions, reactions, positions do what is in the best interest of the company with our headquarters back in Germany, and often not what is best for the customer or the overall relationship with the customer.

In fact, our American customers are often treated as if they are serving us, instead of the other way around. And this despite increasing competition and fast changing markets which present viable alternatives to the solutions we are currently providing.

When challenged and presented with all the arguments from the customer’s perspective, I often find that the situation can be changed, that a customer-friendly solution can be identified.

This however, is achieved only after we in the U.S. have demonstrated that we have challenged the customer and established what is actually required to solve their problems and meet their needs.

How do we combine the power of the consultative approach with maintaining a high degree of service- and customer-orientation, while at the same time increasing speed to create a competitive advantage?

Without annoying them

“How can we ask our German colleagues to respond more quickly without annoying them?”

Explain to your German colleagues what time looks like in the specific situation. Lay out the cause-and-effect relationships, i.e. if late by this much time, then this happens.

Prepare, and inform them about, contingency measures you will need to implement in order to react to the negative consequence of lack of speed.

Ask your German colleagues if there is anything you can do to help them to move faster. Offer suggestions on how you might be helpful in speeding things up.

Finally, and very importantly, reflect on your need for a speedier response from your German colleagues. Is speediness truly important? Who and/or what is driving speed as a priority? Is it a real or a perceived need? 

Is your customer – whether corporate-internal or -external – really demanding it? In fact, why not ask your customer? Do you have the courage to ask your customer what is truly important to them?

If you do not have the courage, why not? What kind of business relationship is it if you feel that you cannot ask such questions?

Perhaps there are good reasons for you to be patient and/or for you to ask your customer to be patient. Perhaps because you and they will receive a higher quality result from Germany. “Patience is golden” and “Haste makes waste.”

“Just trust the system”

“In the U.S. market everything is done in a hurry. Shipments come from Germany. We in the U.S. want to know when the shipment will arrive. Germany: ‘I did my part, can’t help you.’

We have to chase down the shipment. Where is it in the process? Our minds explode. Germany: ‘Just trust the system.’ U.S.: ‘That is not an answer for us. Please, show me where it is in the process.’

How can we get our colleagues in Germany to respond more quickly to our needs?”

“Just trust the system” is the German way of saying: “Relax. Calm down. We’re working on it. Our internal processes function well.” American minds explode. It’s true. Those are not legitimate responses for Americans. Why?

Because German processes – the system – don’t work, don’t deliver results, don’t get shipments out in a timely manner? Maybe. But maybe not.

I’ll never tire of writing that Germany is the fourth-largest economy in the world, is the size of the US state Montana, and has only eighty million people. Which means that Germans do get shipments out, and on-time.

So, what’s at play here?

Well, possibly in this German company, in a particular division, the system is not delivering, cannot be trusted. Not all German companies, and not all divisions within German companies, are so-called hidden champions. Some, perhaps more than some, are simply slow, unresponsive, and bureacratic. “Our minds explode.”

But wait, it could also be that Americans don’t place much trust in processes. Relying on a process in crunch-time is never an option. Wait, what does that say about American processes?

And let’s keep in mind that cultures – i.e. USA and Germany – often have a different understanding of what urgent means.