Tim Foster
Context

A large German multinational company. Industry, electronics and engineering. Operating globally. Germany and the U.S. are by far its largest markets. It has a division moving quickly and decisively into software. Internet of Things. Via acquisitions primarily in the United States.

The key to the division’s overall success is internal collaboration between the Americans integrating the acquired software companies and their German colleagues in headquarters leading the division worldwide, including sales and marketing.

Problem

That collaboration was not working well, however. The Americans were fully focused not only on the integration of the acquisitions. But equally important focused on making sure that they are operating as a cohesive unit.

The Germans, on the other side of the Atlantic, were doing their best to offer the new software services to the other divisions within the corporation, to their existing customer base, as well as to new customers. The speed at which both organizations were working was considerable, feverish the Germans would say.

They were experiencing a lot of complexity, in an already complex corporate context, operating in a fast-paced global setting. The two sides had not yet come to agreement about the overall product portfolio. In fact, they had not yet established who should be talking to whom, about what, when and how.

Then there was the constant debate about speed. The Americans wanted to take the initiative, move fast, fail, learn, improve, rinse and repeat. This approach is almost antithetical to the Germans. Learning-by-doing is no way to run a business, any German would say. In fact, from their perspective it is an admission that folks don’t know what they are doing.

Both complained that the respective other side was unclear about their own internal roles and responsibilites. This made it very difficult to know who should be interfacing with whom. They were losing valuable time hunting down the right colleagues to talk to.

Another major problem was granting each other access into their respective inner workings. The German colleagues wanted direct access to the newly acquired software startups. Frankly, they didn’t always believe what their American colleagues were telling them about these companies, their technology, how they were being organized as one unit.

On the flip side, the Americans wanted to better understand how their German colleagues in headquarters were running sales/marketing globally. They wanted information, data, and eventually access to the company’s major customers. Both sides were determined to take down the other’s protective firewalls.

Cause

These are very capable people on both sides of the Atlantic ocean. Intelligent. Accomplished. Most of them experienced working in a global context. And good people. Open, self-critical, cooperative. But Germans and Americans think and work differently.

It begins with their respective product philosophies. They are not the same. For the one side it’s all about quality, reliability, robustness. And systematics. For the other it is more about innovation, simplicity, sexiness. And value. The colleagues were arguing about what the product portfolio should look like.

The two cultures differ also when it comes to speed. This is a recurring theme whenever Americans and Germans collaborate. For the Americans the company can’t move fast enough. They care less about mistakes than they do about being out in front. The Germans, however, cared deeply about mistakes. They don’t like them. The goal is to get it right the first time, and as often as possible. Why? Because it’s faster.

And when it comes to defining roles and responsibilities the Germans spend a lot of time on it. They want as much clarity as possible. In fact, it’s an on-going discussion among them. See how seriously they take their organizational charts. Americans, in contrast, don’t even keep their org charts up to date, much less pay attention to them. Organizations in the U.S. are constantly in flux. The key is knowing who to call.

As for giving colleagues on the respective other side of the ocean access to the inner workings of your organization, that is difficult in any company and in any culture. Up to this point the Americans did not want their German colleagues in sales/marketing to stick their noses in their business of integrating and consolidating the acquired software companies. They were willing to discuss product development. But only if the German side would allow them to better understand how sales/marketing approaches markets and customers worldwide.

There was nothing unique in this kind of tension between sales/marketing and product portfolio. Unique is that we’re talking about Germans and Americans who have different mindsets when it comes to these critical disciplines.

Solution

Off-site. San Francisco. Two and half days. Five American and five German colleagues. No emails. No phone calls. Full focus on key topics. The atmosphere among the two organizations was actually quite good. These are professionals and good people. But they have complex issues to clarify.

And they succeeded. For the most part. Without always getting total clarity. But that was ok, because they came to a far deeper understanding of their respective points of view.

It was a real eye-opener for both sides to realize and accept that their approaches to decision-making, although very different, were equally effective. The German systematic approach appears to be slower, but since they move on several fronts at once, it is in fact fast. The American trial-and-error method is fraught with errors, but if you learn from them quickly you end up moving further faster.

Regarding roles, responsibilities and interfaces the two sides came up with a very pragmatic solution: a matrix on the corporate intranet, constantly updated by team-members, providing all essential information about who is working on what, where, with what contact information. A phone call during the off-site to an influential member of the works council in Germany got a green light for the matrix.

When it came to providing access to each side’s inner workings, however, things became a bit tense. The ten colleagues needed half a day to just get to the point of letting down their defenses.

When the lead German, Olaf, said: “Ok, it’s time to have one of your folks participate in our key customer meetings”, his counterpart, Nancy, responded: “And we want your folks embedded in our post-merger integration organization as well in our product development teams.” That was a major breakthrough in trust-building. After that they needed only a few hours to discuss the details.

Value

On the business level they achieved clarity on the mission-critical topics. The topics briefly described above were the major ones. And each of them included two to three important secondary issues.

On the level of culture there were major breakthroughs. Again, these are five Americans and five Germans with significant experience working internationally. And although they have always been aware that cultural differences existed, they could never quite articulate the differences between Germany and the U.S. During the off-site they understood the influence of those differences on their collaboration.

It was on the human level that the greatest progress was made. The American and German colleagues opened up to each other. They spoke sincerely about their fears, anxieties, as well as their hopes and dreams. The turning point was after their dinner on the first night.

When they arrived to San Francisco they were tense. When departing they were loose and relaxed. In the days and weeks after the workshop their communication increased and increased. It’s been several months. They are collaborating not only as colleagues, but as friends.