Jonathan Riley
Context

A German DAX30 Company.  With a very large presence in the U.S., it’s single largest market. A critical central functions group has a small, but key team in each country. Manfred’s team is responsible for Europre. Phil’s team for the Americas. These are the most sophisticated strategic thinkers in the company. Their cross-Atlantic collaboration is essential for the success of their group. And that success is essential to the future of the company.

Problem

They were not getting along, to put it mildly. Not only about strategic direction, but also about how they do their work.

From the German perspective: “The approach of our American colleagues is too short-term. They’re more tactical than strategic. And their tools of analysis, quite frankly, are not up to date. Because of that they don’t go into the required depth and breadth. Particularly irritating is their constant iteration with the heads of divisions.”

Furthermore: “What’s the value in having a corporate central functions group for strategy if we constantly allow ourselves to be influenced by those running the business day-to-day? Even more bothersome is their habit of contracting out important aspects of our work to external consultants. Again, we get paid to address these questions, especially the highly sensitive ones.”

The situation looked much different from the other side of the Atlantic. The American colleagues said: “Our German colleagues are brilliant analysts. But their horizons are too far away. Ten years, whereas we’re looking three to max. five years down the road. Yes, they have very sophisticated tools, but they can be overly scientific, abstract, detached from the real issues. Such tools seduce them into going far too deep and far too wide. They lose focus quickly.”

Furthermore: “And for some strange reason they refuse to maintain lines of communication with the business units. We’re setting strategy for them not for us or for some spreadsheet. Analogous to this they fight us every step of the way when we bring in needed outside expertise. We can’t possibly know everything. Maybe it’s due to their, in our opinion, overly sensitive data privacy concerns.”

The internal competition between the two groups was having a negative effect. Important information was not flowing as quickly back and forth over the Atlantic. They were falling behind in quality and speed of their deliverables. The division heads were picking up mixed signals. Particularly concerning was that they were slow in reacting to M&A opportunities. The board had become aware of the internal tensions.

Cause

Again, these are very experienced and sophisticated people. The cultural differences should have been obvious to them. Germans are long-term thinkers. Americans short-term. There are reasons for this. When it comes to analysis Germans demand stringency and objectivity. They are scientific. Americans can do science, too, but are comfortable with some degree of subjectivity and intuition.

German strategic thinking means per definition getting abstract, meaning placing distance between those doing the analysis and those operationally doing the work. Americans don’t like anything abstract. Decoupling strategic thinking from operational experience doesn’t make sense to them. And bringing in external experts is just plain smart.

Solution

They went off-site. New York City. Manfred and Phil each with three colleagues. Three full days. A serious, but necessary, time investment. Two weeks before the workshop the topics to be addressed had been identified. They were the problems described above as well as a few others.

With each topic they took a two-step approach. First, understand how and why they diverged in their thinking. Each time responding to three questions: Where do we diverge? With what impact on our collaboration? How do we get the divergences to work for instead of against us?

Second, they then applied their newly gained insights to how they can more effectively collaborate. Specifically. Concretely. At times very granular. But always building in room for flexibility.

The eye-opener was that on the one side many of the cultural differences were familiar to them. On the other side, however, they had never considered the possibilities that the differences exerted influence on their collaboration. In some cases culture was the primary cause for their internal conflict.

It was that insight which led to a side conversation between Manfred and Phil during lunch on the afternoon of the third day. Manfred to Phil: “Do you see what I see?” Phil: “I think I do, but you go first.” Manfred: “If these fundamental cultural differences are impacting our work . . .”

Phil excited, interrupted: “Yes, then they necessarily are influencing the global teams throughout the company.” Manfred: “Exactly! Every one of our divisions has dozens and dozens of global teams.” Phil: “Ok, let’s get our act together first.” Manfred: “Then reach out to our colleagues in HR, perhaps with them go to the board.” Phil: “Exactly!”

Value

The eight colleagues had major breakthroughs on three levels. On the business level they were able get a surprisingly high degree of agreement on the topics which had led to so much friction. On some topics it was agreement in principle, in others it was agreement in the details. This was very satisfying and dramatically reduced tension and anxiety.

On the cultural level it was particularly exciting for them. Why? Because they began to connect the dots, to see where and why they were talking past each other or in some cases in direct conflict. This was more than just intellectual excitement. They began to understand how the deeper-lying cultural differences influenced their work, from their most basic operating assumptions down to the very granular level of the daily interaction.

Finally, and most importantly, on the human level they experienced breakthroughs of the heart. The offsite included breakfasts, lunches, dinners, breaks during the workshop, and long walks, all allowing for colleague-to-colleague, person-to-person talks, as human beings.

For the first time they had a chance to truly get know each other. The workshop focused on differences in approaches, so that they could develop joint approaches. Good. But the personal time together helped them see that they all wanted the same things: do good work, get along with each other, find joy in their work.