Systematize vs. Break down

This article appeared in Handelsblatt Global Edition on April 20, 2018.

Germans and Americans make decisions in totally different ways, which often leads to clashes. In his second piece in a series, John Otto Magee, an American living in Germany who advises companies in cross-cultural management, explains the dilemma.

Germans think systematically. They formulate their understanding of a decision to be made in a very broad and interconnected context. Therefore Germans do not always consider it helpful to take complexity and, as Americans say, “break it down” into its component parts. They aim to do the opposite, to see particulars in their interrelationships. They look for patterns, strive to understand complexity as a whole, as a system.

That’s one reason why Germans spend a lot of time debating Fragestellung – literally, the way the question is formulated. This is the definition of the matter to be addressed. Before Germans make a decision, they expend great effort into first being sure that they agree on the decision to be made. So they engage in a discussion upfront: What is the nature of this decision? 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?

This German yearning to understand the system as a whole is baked into the language. When a German gets confused, he or she says: Ich habe den Überblick verloren, literally: “I have lost overview”, or “I can no longer take in the complexity from one elevated vantage”. Germans place supreme value on Überblick (overview), on understanding a system as a whole.

The next step after Überblick is Durchblick, or “through-view”. Somebody who has graduated from having an overview to also having “through-view” truly know knows what he or she is talking about, and understands both the details and the big picture. But while such an expert “looks through” a subject, he still maintains Umsicht, a “view around” at all tangential topics. This is a cautionary principle to mitigate risk.

This difference goes beyond style.

Americans rarely engage in such Germanic discussions about the systematics of a decision at hand. They talk instead about who or what is served by a good decision. They “break down” complexity into its component parts, on the premise that this leads them to what is essential.

This American habit of breaking things down is already instilled in grammar school. In English Composition, American children are taught to write short, simple and clear sentences ordered in a logical sequence. Good composition avoids sentences with complex grammatical twists and turns, of the sort that are standard in German. The goals are simplicity and clarity.

Ernest Hemingway, considered one of America’s greatest writers, shied away from convolution in grammar and style. He never used big words or complicated sentences, yet he succeeded in painting vivid images. German diction, by contrast, sounds to an American as Mark Twain put it: “Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.”

This difference goes beyond style. Americans do not engage in lengthy discussions about the essence of a decision to be made. Their approach to all decisions is primarily motivated 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.

So Germans see Americans as moving through the decision-making process impatiently, without having thought through the complexity of the issue. Americans think that Germans consider too many factors not directly relevant to the decision, thus wasting time and momentum.

Americans think that Germans waste time and momentum.

This situation can become unhealthy and self-defeating. Each side is determined to get its way, to have the say. Unfortunately, neither recognizes what lies at the heart of their battle. Both want their fundamental approach to making decisions to become universal for the company. All involved are aware of the negative effects on the organization. Decisions, even routine ones, begin to demand far too much time. Teams begin to work against, instead of with, each other. Each side suspects the other of political maneuvering.

But, wait! It doesn’t have to be this way. The inherent strengths in how Americans and Germans make decisions can be understood and combined. Germans should remain systematic in their approach. It’s one of their strengths. At the same time they should try to become more pragmatic, and sometimes narrow the scope.

The Americans, meanwhile, need to engage with their German colleagues in their seemingly philosophical discussion about the nature of the decision to be made. They may find a broader perspective to be of value. Once the Americans are full participants in such a discussion, they can influence the decisions from the beginning. And they should never forfeit one of their great strengths: the ability to break complexity down, or what the Germans awkwardly translate as herunterbrechen.

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