Worst of both worlds

“Ok, we understand the idea that the overall goal of integration is bringing together the best of both worlds – German approach and American approach. For example, German thoroughness and American speed and flexibility. But how do we react when we find ourselves bringing together the worst of both worlds – sloppy work and far too slow?”

Hmm, this is not the easiest of questions to respond to. There is no specific point of entry. It is clear that collaboration is not going well. I suspect that the organization has not been addressing culture. Or that if it has, then most likely not in the right way.

I would have to know much more about the situationt in order to provide any meaningful advice. So let me just make a few general points.

Par for the course
That is a figure of speech. The MerriamWebster Dictionary states: “the score standard for each hole of a golf course; an amount taken as an average or norm,an accepted standard.”

I hope that my statement – that your problem is “par for the course” – is consoling. For the problem you are experiencing is no surprise, is rather normal, and in many ways healthy. No one on either side is doing anything wrong.

Don’t panic. Remain calm. Continue to engage with each other. You’ve entered into a complex relationship. It requires time and patience to work things out.

Human Beings
Always remember, especially in the “heat of the battle”, that you are colleagues. You are in this together. You succeed or fail together. This is personal. And it should be personal. You are human beings and not machines. We human beings make machines. And we live in the Machine Age. But we ourselves are not machines. We do not interact with each other as if we were parts in a machine.

Subject Matter
Begin – together – identifying the key points of difference. Literally, what you are fighting about, what you are struggling over. Proceed point-for-point. Don’t be afraid to let the emotions out. Don’t try to suppress them. But always be honest and sincere with each other. And, at all costs, do not be political with each other. Do not treat each other as means to an end, but instead as ends in and of themselves.

Then, point-for-point, engage with each other about the your respective logics, about the deep-lying drivers of your thought and therefore of your action. Explain to each other how you think, why you think that way, where it comes from.

This will not be easy. Most of us don’t usually reflect on this. We think that our approach is universal and not country- or culture-specific. Identifying and then reflecting about our deeper-lying drivers is difficult enough. Explaining them to colleagues from another culture is even more of a challenge. We are simply not used to doing it. It is unfamiliar to us.

Roles and Responsibilities

“Although I have worked with German colleagues for 15+ years in a global context, I still see the strong push from them to clearly define roles and responsibilities. This occurs with people who have already established trust and confidence in working together, as well as with new colleagues, and when timelines are short.

Where does this need for such clarity come from, even prior to beginning any work towards the objective? How can we balance this need with the need to react faster in the market?”

I can attest that in the German business culture there is a very high need to define as clearly as possible who does what, meaning roles and responsibilities. German organizational charts should be taken very seriously, for example. They are always up-to-date, carefully constructed, and accurate in portraying how a German team is set-up.

And yes, the Germans come together on a regular basis to establish and maintain a common understanding of who does what, and who does not do what. Why?

Germans work independently

For one, the Germans work – and like to work – independently. They define the team structure, the tasks to be completed, roles and responsibilities, lines of communication, key processes, etc., then they go to work. The frequency, duration, depth and nature of their communication during the work is different than in a comparable American team.

The more independent the team members work, the more important it is to clearly define roles and responsibilities up front. If done well, it leads to speed, quality and efficiency. A high level of clarity about roles and responsibilities is especially important when timelines are tight.

This is not a paradox. Nor is it a paradox when German colleagues who know and trust each other well also focus intensely on first clarifying roles and responsibilities.

Germans encroach

There is another purpose, I believe, in the German context for putting so much time (as judged from the American perspective) into clarifying who does what. The Germans have a tendancy to enroach on each other’s area of responsibility, on each other’s mandate, work scope, roles and responsibilities.

Merriam-Webster defines encroach as: To gradually move or go into an area that is beyond the usual or desired limits; to gradually take or begin to use or affect something that belongs to someone else or that someone else is using.

The path to success (promotion, prestige, higher pay) in German companies is usually via size. The larger your organization, the larger its revenues, the more people it has, the greater its scope (roles and responsibilities), the better.

Germans can be very territorial, which means they are to a certain degree wary of each other. They are careful to “protect their garden”, as they say. Protect from encroachers.

I believe – without being a psychologist of the German people – that it is very important for Germans to be able to say: “This is my job. It belongs to me and to no one else. I own it. And no one else will take it away from me.”

Americans don’t encroach

Americans, on the other hand, also value the importance of clarity in who does what. They approach it more fluidly, however. They prefer to get only a required degree of clarity in order to then get started with their tasks quickly, knowing that through the actual work they will gain on-going clarity about roles and responsibilities.

Secondly, Americans are far less inclined than Germans to encroach on each other’s work scope. Americans in the workplace certainly aren’t angels, nor are the Germans devils. But Americans have very low tolerance for internal bickering about who does what.

American team leads reserve the right anyway to “move players around on the field”, meaning making constant adjustments to who does what.

Finally, the way in which teams in the American business culture operate requires that flexibility in roles and responsibilities. Any restrictions or overly-defined internal rules inhibit rather than enable rapid-reacting teamwork.

Depending on the team, individual tasks meld together, overlap, work so closely hand-in-hand that clear lines of delineation between them would be difficult to define.

Two cultures. Two approaches to clarifying who does what. Plenty of potential for misunderstanding, problems, suboptimal collaboration.

“How can we balance this need with the need to react faster in the market?”

I think you may know my response to the question. Sit down together. Address the issue. Step 1 – Understand the respective cultural approaches. Step 2 – Combine the inherent strengths of both.

Not specific enough?

Ok. Get clarity on who does what at a basic level, the fundamentals. Talk it through thoroughly. Your German colleagues will expect it. Do it with them. It won’t kill you. In fact, it will give you deeper insight into how they work.

Then remain in constant dialogue for the duration of your collaboration on those areas not clearly defined: the overlaps, the hand-offs, the grey areas. That’s where the potential for misunderstanding and friction will occur.

It’s also where the critical questions of your teamwork will pop up. It’s where collaboration actually takes place. It’s where you’ll either succeed or fail together.

Processes and Certificates

“I’ve always been baffled by how Germans can attempt to persuade by referring to processes and certificates. That is certainly a cultural issue which even after 14 years I’m not willing to accept.”

You are baffled. When Germans refer to processes and certificates it does not persuade you. Why do Germans persuade with processes and certificates?

If a German brings the topic of processes into the conversation then that conversation is about how something should be done.

A decision has been made. Something should be done. It’s about the How. So the next decision is how to do that something.

Germans believe very strongly in processes. Yes, there are many bureaucratic processes in Germany. Just as there are in the U.S.

But when Germans talk about processes, they mean not only literally „how the work should be done“, but also in a more fundamental sense that how you do the work determines the results, the output, whether you reach your goal or not.

Process and results (of that process) are two sides of the same coin. They are inseparable. To talk about outcomes (results) means to talk about process.

When Germans talk about their processes, they are saying: „We’ve done this before. Many times. We have a way of doing. It has proven itself. Please allow us to explain to you how we would do this.“

Certificates are important in Germany. They represent the way in which Germans say: „See this person? She or he is capable of doing this task. They have been trained and tested. We, the organization which granted this certificate, are experts in this area. We know the material, and we know how to impart it to others.“

Now, as in any country, one can question the organizations granting certificates, and therefore question the person holding the certificate.

And although we at CI have not yet analyzed this aspect of German business culture – how Germans define, develop and certify competence – anyone with experience working with Germans knows that they are a very capable people, knows that they have a very successful educational and technical training system, and knows that their duale Bildungssystem has been one of the keys to their success.

When a German presents their certificate, for example as a Meister (literally Master) in any technical or artisan trade, or they present their diploma as an engineer, chemist, economist, you can be very sure that they are that they know how to do the job, as they were trained to do it.

The process in the German context signals: „This is the best way to do it.“ The certificate signals: „And I know how to execute this process.“

Both of these, of course, from the German perspective.

One right solution

“Why do Germans believe that there can be only one right solution?”

„Alle Wege führen nach Rom“

„There‘s more than one way to skin a cat“, an American idiom which communicates that there are different ways to reach the same goal, to complete a task, to „get the job done.“ When Germans are asked for an equivalent idiom they always say „All roads lead to Rome.“

But do the two idioms really have the same meaning? First let‘s understand the meaning of „All roads lead to Rome“ via its history.

During the days of the Roman Empire everyone was to know that Rome was the center of all life. Every road in the Roman Empire either led directly to Rome, or was linked to one of the major roads which did lead directly, or more directly, to Rome.

Not only did this fact help to point out the dominance of Rome in the Roman Empire, it also enabled trade. One of the reasons that the Roman Empire lasted several centuries was because travel was easy. „All roads lead to Rome.”

But not only trade. Also Roman troops. „All roads lead to Rome“ signaled that no matter what one did, no matter how one tried to get around it, one had to do things the Roman way. The well-planned and -guarded Roman road system was designed to make sure that the provinces couldn’t organise resistance against the Empire.

In modern times the phrase „All roads lead to Rome“ has since taken on another meaning, that something is set up so that disparate means will eventually achieve the same goal. The key word is „eventually“, for not every path to Rome was equally fast, efficient, affordable and safe.

Americans are a pragmatic people. They care far more about the results than they do about the method. They believe strongly that there are several, if not many, ways to „get the job done.“ As an immigrant people, with a multi-ethnic society, the pursuit of the „one right solution“ would be close to impossible.

Nor could that pursuit be reconciled with the American deeply-held understanding of freedom, individualism, individual rights. And the American experience has demonstrated that the varied, flexible, situation-specific approach to „skinning a cat“ also leads to success.


There Germans are very strong in the natural sciences, mathematics, physics and engineering. They have a national cultural inclination to take a scientific approach to whatever problems they address. Science aims to discover the truth, the solution, the correct answer. It is a pursuit.

Germans believe that there, indeed, can be only one truly best approach, one best solution, one optimal way to do something. In that they are not wrong. Although all roads did lead to Rome, not all were equal. Depending on the situation, one route was best. Put another way, the parties traveling should try to identify which route was right, best, optimal. A pursuit.

So for the Germans, the „one right solution“ is the best solution at any given time. And because the pursuit of that route‘s optimization never ends, at a later time there will be another „one right solution.“

But also human

The Germans are human beings and not scientific machines. It should be of no surprise that such a capable, ambitious and self-confident people would view their approach to a given task as „the right solution“, the best route to Rome, the optimal way to „get the job done.“

And their success verifies to and for them that this is the case. Until proven otherwise they, understandably, are not always willing to consider „another route.“ Why take the risk? Why change things? The English figure of speech would be „never change a winning team.“

Unless, of course, another approach has the potential to become the new optimal way. That is where an additional factor, or motivation, comes into play. It, too, is deeply human.


What if an alternative approach also leads to the same, or better, results? And what if the logic embedded, or at the root, of that approach is not familiar, or even foreign, to the Germans and the logic behind their approach?

If there is a competition of approaches, and the one wins over the other, then the consequences for the losing side are significant. Those on that side need to adopt and adapt to the other logic, to the other approach. And if that approach is unfamiliar (not from the same family, meaning culture), it can be difficult to learn it, to take on, even to understand. For any culture, not just the German, this all means change, insecurity, risk.

„All roads lead to Rome“ also meant that the provinces, areas subjugated militarily by the Roman army, remained subservient to Rome. Command and control over the roads (transportation, logistics, troop movements) was synonymous with power. Rome as headquarters, the provinces as regions.


The discussion, often battle, over the „right way“ to do something – internal processes, IT systems, product development, go-to-market strategies – is not only about businesses working more effectively, it is about power.

This is even more true when different cultures come together to collaborate. Colleagues in mono-cultural companies – or companies in which one culture dominates – share the same logic behind their approaches. Variations in approach are no more than variations on the same theme.

Collaboration in companies with several cultures involves a more complex discussion and debate about which approach to take, which method is best, about the „right solution.“

And since the Germans focus very strongly on „how the work is done“, they instinctively recognize that power is rooted in who has the say about the „right solution“ understood as process, method, approach, about the „road.“

The discussion about the „one right solution“, therefore, is at a far deeper level a debate, a battle, about who has the say about the route, way, road.

Process Descriptions

“Why do Americans prefer describing processes in prose text? Germans prefer diagrams, which can then be combined to illustrate processes. The German approach seems to be übersichtlicher (clear, clearly arranged).“

A interesting point!

Germans brief

I’ve seen many process documents in both cultures. The Americans seem to use both prose text and illustrations. In fact, Americans are famous for preferring pictures with some explanatory words over too much text. I agree, however, that many process and procedure descriptions can be lengthy in wording.

On the other side, German process descriptions do tend to be brief, often relying on illustrations and very limited prose text. Could it be that those who write the processes in Germany assume, and expect, that the reader need only see the illustration (the boxes and their connections) in order to understand what needs to be done?

Americans lengthy

On the flipside, could it be that American process descriptions assume that the reader is not familiar with the process, therefore it needs to be spelled out in prose text?

Implied in the fact that a process is documented is that those people who will read it are not necessarily familiar with it. If that is the case, then it makes sense for the document to go into detail, or more detail than its German counterpart.

Differences are key

The more fundamental question here, though, is what the different approaches to such documents tell us about the differences between Americans and Germans when it comes to processes and procedures. Documents are no more than representations of logics, approaches, methods, ways of doing things.