„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.