Steven works in Atlanta. Anna in Stuttgart. Steven’s needs data from the most important projects company-wide. Anna had worked on one of those projects. Steven reaches out to Anna, who wants to help. But they fail to agree on how to collaborate. All lose: Steven, Anna, the company. It was avoidable.
ACT 1 – “Rude and impatient”
Steven works in Atlanta. Anna in Stuttgart. They’re colleagues in engineering. Steven has a new task: FastTrack, a high-profile development project.
He needs to gather valuable data from the most important recent projects company-wide. As soon as possible. Anna had worked on one of those projects. Steven and Anna know of each other, but not very well.
Steven sends Anna an email in telegraph style and ends it with a request: „Please send any and all analysis and data which could be relevant for FastTrack.“
Anna reads the email, but isn’t sure what to do with it. It is very brief, has almost no background information, and is kind of rude. She decides not to react, thinking: if Steven is serious, he‘ll write again with more information.
Steven follows up by email the next day. Anna responds that she received the first email, is busy, will get to it next week.
Steven is annoyed. He calls Anna‘s by phone and leaves a message. The next day Anna listens the voicemail, but ignores it, thinking: „He‘ll just have to be patient.“
In the meantime, Steven‘s team lead – Craig Smith – asks him about his progress. Steven is beginning to get nervous. But, he waits one full day, then calls Anna again.
One of her colleagues takes his message. Anna returns to her desk, reads that Steven has called, wonders why this guy is so pushy. She responds by email, restating that she‘ll get to it next week. When Anna‘s email pops up on his computer screen, Steven grabs his phone immediately and calls her.
ACT 2 – The First Phone Call
Anna picks up. They do the usual smalltalk. Steven mentions Craig Smith, his boss, and Mary Miller, senior vice-president for innovation, then asks for Anna’s help.
Anna responds that she is very busy, will get to it at end of next week, and asks for background information. Steven wants to explain FastTrack to her on the phone. Anna interrupts him: “Send me the project charter.” Steven replies: “I can email the info but it is incomplete. Anna, I’m under time pressure.”
Anna tells him to send her what he has, she will read it, and then get back to him. She thought: “He needs to do his homework before he can expect me to do the work for him.”
The next morning he sends over bits and pieces of information about FastTrack. That afternoon Steven bumps into Mary Miller, who asks how things are going on FastTrack. He hints at German slowness. She offers her support if he needs it.
ACT 3 – Annoyed but Interested
The following week, Wednesday evening late, Anna has time to get to Steven‘s email. She recognizes immediately that the information was thrown together hastily. It takes her an hour just to put the material into some kind of logical order, thinking to herself: „Can you believe this?“
Anna emails Steven: “Too much information. Send the project charter. And please state simply what you need.” Steven reads and thinks: “She doesn‘t know what to send over to me? That‘s why I sent her the background information!”
He writes back: “Because we don‘t know about your project from last year, Anna, it is difficult for me to know what results you produced. Hoping you would figure that out. Can we discuss tomorrow by phone?“
Anna reads Steven‘s email during lunch and realizes that he will continue following up until he gets what he needs. And FastTrack does sound interesting. She wants to be helpful, so she decides to schedule a phone call with Steven.
ACT 4 – The Second Phone Call
The second phone call actually goes quite well. Steven explains FastTrack. Anna: „Ok, now I understand what it‘s about. Give me a week or so.”
Steven thanks her, but tries to schedule a third phone call. He wants to keep her focused. Anna is reluctant: „Let‘s first see how far I get”, thinking again how impatient he is.
Steven tries to nail her down: „Good. Friday at 2 pm your time?“ Anna: „I‘ll send you an email on Thursday. Please be a bit more patient.“ Steven mentions again the time pressure, and hints at his conversations with Craig Smith and with Mary Miller. He wants Anna to recognize the urgency of the situation.
ACT 5 – Anna keeps her word. But, Steven gets even more nervous.
Anna kept her word. She re-read many of the documents from the project she had worked on. Talked to her colleagues. And she wants to go deeper in order to send valuable information.
Anna emails Steven: “Gotten my head back into the project. We have really good data for FastTrack. I want to put more time into it. Will get back to you next week.”
Steven was in a staff meeting with his boss, Craig Smith. He reads the email on his smartphone, holding it under the table. „Oh no, Anna needs another week. This is insanely slow!“
Smith then asks Steven about the status on his work. Steven takes a deep breath: “Good progress on U.S. side. Slower on the German side. I’m pushing, but have to be careful not to lose their cooperation.“ Smith: „Ok. Stay persistent. If you need help, I can go up chain of command.”
Steven fires a response back to Anna: „Great. Thanks. Can we discuss now?“
Anna responds: „No time. Husband and I sitting down for dinner. Please wait til next week. It will be worth it. I’m uncovering valuable material.“
Steven, getting very nervous, writes: “Pressure increasing here. Need to talk tomorrow as planned. I call you.“ Anna: „Tomorrow won‘t work. How about on Tuesday?” Steven: „I’m out of office Monday til Wednesday. Please, can we talk over the weekend?“
For Anna this was simply too persistent of Steven: “Why can‘t he just calm down and trust that I will get the job done. Does he want quality results or just some data thrown over the wall?”
Anna writes back: „Be a bit more patient. As a good German, I like to perform my tasks properly. And by the way, I try to spend my weekends with my husband and our children.”
Steven thought: „Good German? Slow German. Over-analytical German. Bureaucratic German.“
ACT 6 – An Email
Steven decides to speak with his boss: „I may need your help. The German side is dragging its tail.“ Craig Smith: „Should I make a phone call or send an email?”
Steven gave it some thought, then got the email address of Dr. Klaus Habermas, who is Craig Smith’s counterpart in Germany at the same management level.
He formulated an email from Smith to Habermas asking for better cooperation.
Habermas reads the email. He has worked with Americans, and sensed what was happening. Americans like to escalate up the hierarchy in order to apply pressure.
Habermas was annoyed, but forwarded the email to several people, including to Anna. She immediately suspected Steven. She was not the least bit amused, to put it mildly.
Anna decided to send an email to her boss, who reported directly to Habermas: „You know how impatient the Americans can be. They‘ll get solid data from me. They just have to be patient.“
ACT 7 – What a shame !
The communication between Steven and Anna went from bad to worse. On top of that, Anna’s manager asked her to help out another team which had run into unexpected technical problems. Suddenly she had even less time to help Steven.
In the end, Anna did send over valuable data to Steve. But it was neither comprehensive, nor in depth, nor did it include the kind of insightful analysis that Anna was well-known for. All that takes time.
From Anna‘s perspective Steven was sloppy in his work. And his constant and impatient follow-up got on her nerves, signaling to her that he had little confidence in her abilities. And the Smith-email to Habermas was very poor form. Professionals simply don’t do those kinds of things.
From Steven‘s point of view Anna could have at a minimum sent partial results so that he could show progress. She also could have asked about the level of detail he needed. And her response time was just terrible. Anna had no sense of urgency!
It was a missed opportunity. For both sides.
Anna had become very interested in FastTrack, and in helping. Steven would have gotten first-rate data and analysis. Anna lost out, too. Had she continued, she would have gained Steven, Craig Smith and Mary Miller as friends and allies within the company.
The FastTrack-project lost out, too. It all could have been avoided. What a shame !
ACT 8 – What went wrong
At the outset it was not clear to Anna what Steven wanted. His request that she enter into an agreement did not provide enough information.
Before Germans consider entering into an agreement they expect a significant amount of context information.
Americans, in contrast, need less information before entering into an agreement. They reserve the right, however, to exit the agreement as they become more informed.
When Steven did send over comprehensive context information Anna found it to be poorly prepared. She had to invest time in order to systematize it.
Germans expect a deliverable to be complete. The receiver should be able to act on it immediately.
Americans are comfortable with partial deliverables. Provided they are sent quickly, are relevant, and actionable.
Steven’s constant follow up annoyed Anna. He didn’t give her time to consider his request. And it implied to Anna that Steven did not consider her to be reliable.
Follow up in Germany is rare. Once an agreement has been made, – even a preliminary agreement – both parties expect each other to follow through.
Follow up in the U.S. is essential to agreements. Follow up maintains forward movement, communicates degree of urgency, and informs quickly about changes in parameters.
Anna found Steven’s name-dropping of high-level American managers to be a crude and unprofessional form of pressure. Anna was not impressed. Steven simply wanted to underscore the pressure under which he was working.
Yes / No
Despite their miscommunication, Anna not only agreed to help Steven, she found the project interesting and important. Anna had said “yes” to Steven’s request. She had much to contribute.
Unfortunately, Steven did not understand her signals. Nor did Anna realize that Steven had misunderstood her signals.
ACT 9 – The Cost of Cultural Misunderstanding
The collaboration between Steven and Anna broke down. What did that breakdown cost the company?
Anna was in a position to contribute first-rate data and analysis to FastTrack. What do you think that lost contribution cost the company?
Both Steven and Anna invested time and energy in their failed collaboration. Estimate that investment for the company.
The real shame is that Steven and Anna were both capable and willing to collaborate. What effect will their negative experience with each other have on their willingness to work in the future with colleagues on the respective other side of the Atlantic?
Consider how many similar Steven+Anna situations there are in your company. Situations in which American and German colleagues have problems coming to an agreement about if and how they can support each other. Estimate the costs per year when those situations either underperform or fail.