Author Archives: John Magee

Freie Universität and Fragestellung

Fragestellung. Frage, question. Stellung from the verb stellen, to put or place.

It was 1989. I was a graduated student at the Freie Universität in Berlin, then West Berlin. The Wall still existed. As did West and East Germany, the Soviet Union, and many other places, people and things which have since gone.

The course was on international relations. Cold War. No mid-term or final exam, instead a paper, Hausarbeit, typically 25-30 pages in length, requiring some fairly solid research. By mid-semester each of us had our topic. Every third or fourth meeting the professor’s assistant – a brilliant Ph.D. candidate who then went on to receive his own professorship – addressed each of us one by one about the progress we were making.

“What is your Fragestellung?”

I recall very vividly the intensity of the meeting. He would ask time and again – politely, but relentlessly – “Wie lautet Ihre Fragestellung?”, what question we were putting, placing, asking, addressing. Again and again. Fragestellung.

It seemed as if we spent more time discussing our Fragestellung than getting into the topic. It fascinated more than bothered me. His intensity was true, honest, determined, most importantly well-meaning. He was pushing us to get clear, to be clear-minded.

When it comes to decision making the first – and fundamental – question is: “What actually is the decision we are making?”

Germans get broad. Americans go narrow.

Nature of the Decision

From the German point of view it is not enough to be capable of making decisions, to answer complex questions intelligently, if you haven’t first defined accurately the decision to be made, the question to be answered.

Germans engage in a discussion upfront about: What is the nature of the decision we are about to make? What are its implications for other areas of our work? Are we addressing the right question? Are we in agreement about what decision we are making and why?

Schmal (narrow): Old High German smal: small, narrow; narrow in width, as seen in profile; little, few, not enough, bare, barren.

Breit (wide): Of greater length in profile; as in size(s), measurements, a certain width; large, stretched; in large measure.

The German word schmal is often used to describe poor performance, low quality, something deficient. An engineer who delivers poor results is referred to as a Schmalspuringenieur, literally a narrow lane engineer. A Schmalspurforscher is a scientist who has achieved little professionally. Schmalbrüstig – literally small or narrow in the chest – is someone who is unathletic.

Grundsätzlich: Relating to what is foundational; in accordance with a principle, in principle; actual, fundamentally; in general, as a rule.

The German people are serious. They value principles, deep-felt beliefs. Er hat keine Prinzipien. He has no principles, is a very serious criticism in the German context. To have no principles, to have no values, which guide one in their behavior, is considered to be a sign of weak character. Germans tend to have discussions about bottom-line thinking, beliefs, and principles.

The German political parties have their Grundsatzprogramm, their foundational political principles, which are formulated for the long term. The Grundsatzprogramm encompasses their foundational political beliefs, upon which the specifics of their political platform are formulated.

Their election campaigns are closely aligned with these ideas. The Grundsatzprogramm is seldom modified. To go against it, to follow a political course which strays from it, invites internal rebuke and sanction.

Avoid philosophical discussion

Americans do not engage in a discussion about the essence of a decision to be made. If a discussion does takes place about the decision in and of itself, however, it is strictly for the purpose of defining who and/or what is to be served by making a good decision.

Americans invest less time on identifying how a particular decision fits into the broader picture. Their approach to all decisions is primarily motived by pragmatism. Decisions lead to actions, which in turn lead to further decisions to be made. Americans avoid getting weighted down in what they view as over-analysis. Forward movement is of priority.


philosophical: of, relating to, or based on philosophy; having a calm attitude toward a difficult or unpleasant situation; characterized by the attitude of a philosopher; calm or unflinching in the face of trouble, defeat, or loss.

„They got into a philosophical debate about what it means for something to be natural.“ And „He’s trying to be philosophical about their decision since he knows he can’t change it.“ First known use 14th century.

Synonyms: abstract, logical, metaphysical, profound, rational, thoughtful. Also: calm, composed, deep, learned, resigned, stoic, serene, temperate. (MerriamWebster)

Being philosophical in the American context if often considered to be detached, abstract, impractical, unpragmatic, even arrogant.

Regarding the scope of decisions, the Germans go broad and systematic, Americans get narrow and particular.

“Deal with complexity!” … “Make it simple, then decide!”

German Approach
Germans think systematically. They formulate their understanding of the decision in a very broad and interconnected context.

American Approach
Americans do not engage in a discussion about the systematics of a decision, but instead about who or what is served by a good decision. They break down complexity into its component parts, in order to focus on the essential.

German perception
Germans see Americans as moving through the decision making process impatiently, without having thought through the complexity of the issue.

American perception
From the American viewpoint, Germans consider too many factors not determinant in the decision making process. Time is wasted. Momemtum is endangered.

Advice to Germans
Remain systematic in your approach to a decision. At the same time be more pragmatic. Narror the overall scope of your understanding of the problem. Focus on the truly relevant factors. Keep the other factors within your peripheral vision, but do not allow them to distract you from the heart of the matter.

Advice to Americans
Engage with your German colleagues in their seemingly philosophical discussion about the nature of the decision to be made. You will gain insight into their thinking. You may find a broader perspective to be of value. Once you are a full participant in the discussion, you can influence the course of the decision from the beginning. If you feel that your German colleagues are getting a bit too systematic, considering too many factors, this is your opportunity to reign them in.

Bismarck’s Treaty System

Otto von Bismarck was Chancelor of the German Reich from 1871 until 1890. He is best known for a complex web of treaties with the other European powers – France, Great Britain, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czarist Russia. These treaties allowed Germany to grow industrially and militarily without provoking attack by any combination of those rival powers.

Bismarck’s diplomacy ending the Balkan Crisis of 1879 increased Imperial Germany’s international prestige, at the same time limiting Czarist Russia’s influence in that region. Anticipating a frustrated Moscow, Bismarck wisely sought protection from Austro-Hungary via a mutual defense treaty signed in 1879, a treaty relationship which would hold until the end of the First World War.

In 1881 Bismarck pulled off another diplomatic coup by reducing tensions with Czarist Russia and signing a treaty of mutual defense with Moscow, thereby preventing a possible anti-German coalition between Russia and France. Bismarck extended this system of alliances in 1882 by crafting a treaty involving the German Reich, Austro-Hungary and Italy, adding Romania in 1883, defending against a possible French-British alliance against Germany.

Unfortunately, this complex, brilliantly devised system of treaties would fall apart not long after the young and impulsive Kaiser Wilhelm II took power and decided that Bismarck’s time had come to an end. Wilhelm II went on to antagonize and provoke Europe‘s powers in all the ways in which Bismarck had worked so hard to avoid. For this and other reasons, the Great War began in August 1914.

Spock. Kirk. McCoy.

Hastig: hasty, impatient: To act rashly without having considered the consequences; unsettled, jumpy, nervous.

Eile mit Weile translates roughly “take your time when moving quickly”. The Germans believe that good work can be completed sooner by taking your time, working thoroughly, avoiding mistakes whose correction will require more time. Eile mit Weile is for the Germans not a contradiction in terms but a proven approach.

Another common figure of speech in German is mit dem Kopf durch die Wand, literally to try to go through the wall with your head. It signals a lack of sophistication, of imagination, of the ability to navigate around barriers. Those who attempt mit dem Kopf durch die Wand are seen as stubborn, unreflective, rough, intellectually lazy. These are not compliments in the German culture.

Geduld: patience; to bear, to carry; calm and self-controlled acceptance of something which is uncomfortable or could take a long time. Geduld – patience – is required especially in professions whose results come at a much later time. Geduld is also required when work involves much trial and error.

Geduld is critical to being a parent. It is particularly important in any kind of research and development, where most experiments fail. Artists and musicians have to be patient people in order to stay focused over many years of training. Investigators also have to possess Geduld, knowing that many cases go either unsolved or are solved after years of painstaking work.

Vorbereiten: to prepare: to orient oneself to something; to make oneself capable; to complete necessary work ahead of time, in anticipation of; to prepare or develop oneself.

Germans plan. They place great value on preparation. Was man im Kopf nicht hat, muss man in den Füssen haben translates roughly as “What one doesn‘t have in their head, they need to have in their feet”, meaning those who are unprepared have to hustle here and there in order to complete their tasks.

Being unprepared slows down the work of the other colleagues, threatens the execution of the overall plan, forces a rescheduling of work results. Germans feel very uncomfortable when a plan is poorly executed.

Before a German begins a specific task the tools have been laid out, the job description and requirements have been thoroughly read, all the necessary pieces have been assembled, the work plan is pinned on the wall above the workbench, so to speak. The work is then completed in a timely fashion and with an eye on quality.

This is the approach of a master artisan in his shop, of a German Hausfrau in the kitchen, of a German professor at the university. Rarely does that professor need to scurry back to his office in order to get a certain book or paper. Disorganization is a sign of being unzuverläßig, unreliable. What was he thinking that he forgot the book? Is he really serious about his work? How reliable is someone who doesn’t prepare their work?


In his blogpost Stoicism & Star Trek: Think like Spock – Act like Kirk Jen Farren at the University of Exeter writes:

„Gene Roddenberry (creator of Startrek) says that he deliberately: ‘Took the perfect person and divided him into three, the administrative courageous part in the Captain (Kirk), the logical part in the Science Officer (Spock) and the humanist part in the Doctor (McCoy).’“

Farren then quotes Stephen Fry: „You have the Captain in the middle, who is trying to balance both his humanity and his reason. And on his left shoulder, you have the appetitive, physical Dr. McCoy. And on his right shoulder you have Spock, who is all reason. And they are both flawed, because they don’t balance the two, and they’re at war with each other, McCoy is always having a go at Spock. And Kirk is in the middle, representing the perfect solution.“

Kirk tries to balance emotion and reason, but he never loses sight of taking action. His choices and actions make him take risks for the common welfare, even when the purely logical thing might be to do nothing. In the words of Captain Kirk himself: ‘Gentlemen, we’re debating in a vacuum. Let’s go get some answers.“

Internal rhythm vs. External pressure

German Approach
The time allotted to a decision should be determined by the nature of the decision: not dictated by external pressure, but rather by the internal rhythm of the decision-making process.

American Approach
In the American business context it is quite often better to make a suboptimal decision quickly, than to make a better decision too slow or even too late. Wrong decisions can be corrected. For Americans, a decision making process is a contradiction in terms. People, not processes, make decisions.

German perception
The American tendancy to move fast in order to achieve results quickly can become a source of confusion for Germans. They often have difficulty identifying a clear logic behind the actions taken. What Americans would term rapid response coupled with a high level of flexibility, their German colleagues would call “Aktionismus” or nervous movement without or at the expense of thought-through action.

Unfortunately, this confusion on the side of the Germans can turn into irritation if they feel blind-sided by an American “Dezisionismus” (hastily decisionism) which endangers their standards of decision-making quality and rhythm.

American perception
For Americans, Germans afford themselves too much time in their decision-making processes. It is difficult to understand why their German colleagues risk angering the customer by taking additional time. Germans appear overly conservative. From this perspective, German process discipline in decision making can appear rigid, at times in conflict with the purpose of the decision. It is as if the process were more important than the decision itself.

Advice to Germans
Your operating assumption should be that you have less time at your disposal to make a good decision. Your decision making speed should be based on the time needs of whoever benefits from your decision, whoever is the receiver of your „decision making deliverable.“

Advice to Americans
Be guarded against the cliché that Germans are slow in deciding. Their decisions tend to be further-reaching than the American approach. German colleagues or team leads will allow you more time to make a decision, provided your approach is methodical. Use the additional time wisely. However, when you perceive the need to decide quickly, inform your German colleagues a.) why this is so, and b.) how a quick decision, if later proven to be suboptimal, can be corrected.

Systematic Thinkers

Systematic thinking is the foundation of all research. Germany has produced many great thinkers in the natural and social sciences. They are best known for their systematic approach.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was the daughter of German nobility, but decided at an early age to join the Benedictine nuns. She went on to become one of the best educated and wisest of her era, advising secular and religious leaders throughout Europe. Hildegard’s fields of expertise ranged from theology to medicine, music, ethics and cosmology. Her discoveries and insights in the area of plant-based medicines are referred to today.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was one of the leading philosophers of the Enlightenment Age. His Kritik der reinen Vernunft is considered to be the starting point of modern philosophy, creating a new, systematic approach to inquiry. Kant addressed not only the theory of knowledge, but also ethics and aesthetics, the philosophy of religion, law and history, as well as astronomy and the geosciences.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is considered to this day to be the greatest of all German writers. His work encompassed, however, also the natural sciences including botany, optics and the philosophy of color (Farbenlehre).

Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) was a Prussian General and military theorist. His Vom Kriege (On War) a systematic approach to strategy, tactics and the philosophy of war, became the foundation of military thinking in all Western nations. Clausewitz’ writings went beyond how wars are won to address the overall nature and meaning of war in the modern world.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) is renowned as a philosopher, political economist and social critic. Together with Friedrich Engels, Marx analyzed during the height of the industrial revolution the mutual influences and interactions between a society‘s consciousness and its economic system. Although Marxism has proven to fail in practice, it led to what many would consider significant social progress in public education, health care, social legislation. Marx’ writings contributed to the creation of labor unions.

Max Weber (1864-1920) was a German sociologist, legal scholar, and political economist. He is considered a founding father of modern sociology. Weber’s theories influenced greatly the so-called specialty areas of sociology: economics, religion, political power structures.

Karl Rahner (1904-1984) is considered to be the most influential Catholic theologian since Thomas Aquinas. His work opened up Catholic theology to a new and deeper understanding of faith. Rahner’s thinking influenced greatly the Second Vatical Council. Inspired by his studies under Martin Heidegger, Rahner synthesized Catholic theology with the philosophies of the modern era.

More with less vs. Abundant resources

Schwäbische Hausfrau

“Get more done with less.” An intelligent use of resources also aims to maintain balance. Germans try to avoid ‘heading down the wrong path’, especially ‘betting everything on one hand’. Instead, they try to view an individual decision in the broader context of factors and resources. Achieving more with less is a defensive approach.

Decision making latitude. Germans do their best to maintain broad latitude in their decision making, whether it be in companies, families or the government at all levels. They want to make decisions freely, not be forced to make them.

Germans strive to keep as many options open as possible, knowing well that every decision leads to action, which in turn draws on valuable resources: time, budgets, material, manpower. And because revising decisions further depletes resources, Germans try to make the right decision from the start.

Thrifty. The German people are thrifty. The national debt per person is far lower than in Europe’s southern countries and clearly lower than in the U.S.. Private household debt is considered to be a character weakness, of poor planning, an inability to manage a budget. State agencies stand ready at any time to advise German citizens on how to get their personal finances in order.

Exact calculation. Germans are known to calculate ‘with a sharp pencil’. Whether it be the mother of a family, the Chief Financial Officer of a German small-to-medium sized company or a civil servant in the local tax office, the Germans calculate precisely what costs how much, when, with what affect on the overall budget.

Germans speak of the schwäbische Hausfrau, the Swabian mother and head of the household. Swabians are known within German for being especially thrifty. They are the model for financial conservatism, for avoiding non-essentials, for holding on to their money, for saving.

Abundant Resources

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) – French political thinker and historian best known for his Democracy in America – wrote: “The country appears to stretch on forever and is of limitless resources. But, no matter how fast it grows, it will remain surrounded by resources it cannot possibly exhaust.”

Energy: The United States has more coal reserves than any other country in the world and represent one-quarter of the world’s total coal supply. The U.S. has 272 billion tons of coal reserves and uses about 1.1 billion tons of coal per year. At this rate, America’s 272 billion tons of coal reserves would last nearly 250 years.

According to the 2012 article “American Oil Growing Most Since First Well Signals Independence” by Asjylyn Loder on domestic output of oil grew by a record 766,000 barrels a day to the highest level in 15 years, government data shows, putting the nation on pace to surpass Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest producer by 2020.

Net petroleum imports have fallen by more than 38 percent since the 2005 peak, and now account for 41 percent of demand, down from 60 percent seven years ago, moving the United States closer to energy independence than it has been for decades.

Key natural resources: One-third of U.S. land is covered by forests (302 million hectares), making forestland the number one type of land use in the United States. One-fifth of U.S. land is timberland (204 million hectares), which is land capable of producing 1.38 cubic meters per hectare of industrial wood annually. 71 percent of all timberland in the U.S. is privately owned, while 29 percent is publicly owned.

Land: The United States has a land area of 3.8 million miles² (9.8 million km²) compared to 9.7 million km² in China, 0.36 million km² in Germany and 0.38 million km² in Japan.

Population density: United States population density per square mile is 84, compared to 365 for China, 609 for Germany, and 836 for Japan.

Resources: Conserve vs. Deploy

German Approach
Germans are economical in their handling of resources. Suboptimal decisions require modification, which in turn depletes resources.

American Approach
Due to their abundant resources, Americans value rapid resource aggregation – not conservation – and deployment of resources in order to quickly take advantage of opportunities.

German perception
Germans see Americans as wasteful, which not only limits the decision making autonomy of a particular team, but also of the company in general.

American perception
The German need to plan their resources in great detail appears to Americans as too conservative.

Advice to Germans
Continue to be wary of rash decisions which will limit your room to maneuver. At the same time, use those resources available to you in order to take advantage of an opportunity. Decisions often offer real opportunities.

Advice to Americans
When involved in a joint decision, or in a recurring decision, enter into a dialogue with your German colleagues about the resources required. Be direct and specific in discussing exactly which resources will be tapped into by whom, when and at what costs. Listen carefully to how they quantify the impact of a given decision on your organzations resources. Communicate your calculation clearly, also. You will arrive at a resource-allocation acceptable to both.

Limes. Irmensul.

Americans are, indeed, a young and often impatient people. But not all that young, for they are descendents primarily of Europeans. And the Americans of German descent are the largest ethnic group in the U.S., when separating out the British, Scottish and Irish.

In other words, an American, especially an American of German descent, who plays the piano well, including the most difficult works of German composers such as Beethoven (the child of Dutch immigrants to Germany), is just as much, if not more, an heir and descendent of that famous citizen of Bonn as those living in Bonn today who aren’t interested in classical music, who have never visited the house Beethoven’s was born and raised in, who prefer listening to heavy metal music on the MP3-players while sitting on the #61 tram from Dottendorf into the center of town. Americans and Germans are cousins, to a large part sharing the same history.

Here’s a story I heard a while back from a German woman I knew during my graduate studies in Berlin. She was on a flight to North Africa. Morocco or Tunesia. Sitting next to an American: jeans, sweatshirt, baseball cap on his head. One of those seemingly naive, carefree, smiling, overly-friendly Americans who Germans identify immediately.

She wondered what a guy like that – provincial, unsophisticated – was doing on an airplane to North Africa. Did he get on the wrong plane in Frankfurt? After a few minutes of small talk she realized that the “country bumpkin” was a tenured professor at an elite university on the East Coast of the U.S., spoke fluent Arabic, had high-level contacts in Egyptian politics, academics and culture. “Never judge a book by its cover.”

Another story. Similar. November 1995. In Washington, D.C. Watergate Hotel. Evening. We’re sitting in the lounge drinking a beer, after more than a handful of meetings in the American capital. The Majority Leader, his wife, his Chief of Staff, the Head of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Washington. I had been asked by the Majority Leader to accompany him to the U.S. To advise him, and to play “fly on the wall,” to observe, then provide him with my analysis afterwards, on what my Americans eyes see, and American ears hear.

No Cologne Cathedral, but not country hicks.

Before the trip I rewrote his speeches. They had been translated from German into English by the language experts in the Bundestag. A bit wooden, overly structured, not how he speaks. I was also able to arrange for him to give a major foreign policy speech at Georgetown University, my alma mater. Pure coincidence. My uncle was, and is still, a Jesuit and professor of Theology at Georgetown. The university president – a close friend of my uncle – had done his Ph.D. in Theology in the late 1960s in Münster. His “docter father” was the great German theologian, Karl Rahner.

He spoke fluent German and had had several conversations with Chancellor Helmut Kohl, a Catholic from Rhineland Palatinate. Kohl was known to be in close contact with Rome. The CDU (Christian Democratic Union – Kohl’s party) connection to Georgetown goes back to the days of Konrad Adenauer’s chancellorship, 1949-63. One of Adenauer’s sons had studied at Georgetown during the Second World War.

In any case, I felt very comfortable in Washington, having studied at Georgetown just around the corner from the Watergate. That evening a member of the CDU in the German Bundestag walks in, their spokesperson on economic issues, also in Washington for meetings. He pulls a chair up next to the Majority Leader and says: “Wolfgang, it’s astonishing. The Americans are totally informed about our fiscal and economic plans, ours in Germany and in the EU!” Months after the trip it occurred to me: “Hey, wait a minute. Why is this guy so astonished?”

It’s true. Americans don’t have a Cologne Cathedral. They don’t have a Limes. No Teutoburger Forest. No Bavarian Purity Laws for brewing beer, no Irmensul. But are they, therefore, country hicks? Maybe it’s a tactical advantage to be considered such.