“It’s only a car!” – Decision Making

A two-day offsite workshop. Americans and Germans. Engineers. They had problems integrating their respective decision making processes in a critical area.

Day One: Understand the fundamental differences in decision making approaches. Day Two: Integrate how they make the recurring decision.

They were asked to contrast how the two cultures go about buying a used car. The cultural differences jumped off the flipcharts.

The workshop succeeded. And we all had great fun. But what would have been the cost to the company had they failed?

ACT 1 – Harmonize a Decision-Making Process

It was more than a few years ago. A two-day off-site workshop with Americans and Germans. Engineers. They had problems integrating their respective decision making processes in a critical area. Their manager came to me and said:

“John, these are very capable people. First-rate engineers. And they work well together for the most part. Six months ago I asked them to harmonize their decision making processes. But they are making no progress. This is taking far too long. I think cultural differences might be the cause.”

ACT 2 – The Right Analogy

After doing background interviews and analysis I had to think about what analogy I could use on the first day of the workshop in order to get the participants to look more deeply into what they were trying to do.

My belief was, and continues to be, that you can’t effectively integrate that which you don’t fully understand. So how could I help them as quickly as possible to understand where they diverge in how they fundamentally make decisions. In other words, where they diverge in their respective national cultural decision making logics.

Step One: Understand the fundamental differences in decision making approaches. Step Two: Apply that insight into the task at hand of harmonizing two different ways of making the same kind of recurring decision.

We had two full days together. I decided to have them compare and contrast how the two cultures – Germans, Americans – go about buying a used (or new) car. Why that?

Many people make that kind of decision several times in their life. The decision involves a sizable financial investment. The basic elements in the decision making process are the same in both countries. It will be easy to compare the respective approaches. And it will be fun.

ACT 3 – The Exercize

We had only a day. It sounds like enough time, but it would be tight. In the morning the two groups would work separately on the exercize. After lunch they would present, we would discuss and draw conclusions for how best to integrate their decision making processes.

The scenario was rather straightforward. The parents of a eighteen year old son, Peter, decided it was time to buy him a car. Peter and his younger sister had very active lives. The mother was tired of playing taxi driver for them. The son had his driver’s license and was very responsible behind the wheel. “Let’s get Peter a decent used car.”

How do people in the two cultures basically go about making this decision? The German engineering colleagues would respond for Germany, the Americans for the U.S. I gave them five questions:

Scope: What is the overall goal of the decision? What should it accomplish?

Process: Map out the steps, and their sequence, taken in order to make the decision.

Resources: How many hours would be invested into making the decision? Including what would be the shortest and the longest time-frames their respective culture would need to make the decision. What was the maximum price the parents would spend?

Information Gathering & Analysis: How systematically (depth and breadth) would they gather information? And how precise and detailed (stringent) would be their analysis?

Risk: What potential risks would they identify? What would make them nervous, so to speak?

Those in the workshop who had never worked with me were more than skeptical. “What does this have to do with the decision making processes we need to harmonize?” Those who were familiar with my approach responded for me: “This is cool. John knows what he’s doing. Let’s get started!”

ACT 4 – “But, it’s only a car!”

The cultural differences between Germans and Americans jumped off the flipcharts hanging on the walls.

Scope: The German colleagues had a detailed, intricate, very well thought-through description of the role of the car as a kind of new member of the family. It bordered on the philosophical. The Americans were as pragmatic as they could be. Five bullet points: save Mom time; give Peter and sister max. flexibility; etc. etc.

Process: Again well thought out was the German response. Stick to the sequence. Repeat steps if necessary. “A decision is only as good as its decision making process.” The Americans had fewer steps, reserved the right to alter the sequence, including skipping steps. “All processes are a means to an end.”

Resources: “Get it right the first time”, was the German motto. Take your time. Remain patient. A fast decision would be within six weeks, a slow one six months. When it came to money, they calculated with a very sharp pencil. The Americans gave themselves between a week and thirty days. “Hey, the parents might find the right car at the first dealership they visit.” Price was important, but not critical.

Information Gathering & Analysis: The German engineers went into overdrive, creating a comprehensive and complex matrix of the key attributes they were seeking in a car, displayed on several flipcharts taped together. The Americans had two flipcharts, with eight attributes, ranked based on importance.

Risk: Both sets of colleagues identified many of the same risks, but they weighted them differently. Germans worried about the long term, the Americans the short term.

One of the biggest contrasts was how methodical, analytical, academic the German approach was. And the colleague who presented their flipcharts on information-gathering and -analysis was particularly detailed in his description.

Once he was finished, and both groups sighed in relief, one of the American participants – a woman, quiet, respectful, intelligent – could no longer hold it in: “But, Joerg, it’s only a car!” We all erupted in laughter. Joerg turned a bit red, smiled, laughed, then said: “Yeah sure, Laura, but this is a serious investment. We want to make the right decision!” We all erupted again.

On the second day the group quickly applied the differences in approaches to their engineering decision making process. Their solution wasn’t perfect, but over the weeks and months thereafter they refined it. In the end they had a very effective approach. And they had great fun together.

ACT 5 – The Cost of Cultural Misunderstanding

Process Harmonization
That workshop was great fun. And it was very productive. But let’s be honest. Harmonizing how decisions are made can quickly become a very bloody battlefield within global companies.

Think of the most important recurring decision your organization makes. It is critical to your success. Now imagine that decision making process being integrated with a similar process in a company from different business culture.

Estimate the cost to the company to complete the harmonization. In other words, to get it right. Now estimate the cost to the company if the two sides get it wrong?

Decision Execution
Now, what if the harmonization did not go well. What if neither side fully accepts the new joint approach. How effectively will they make decisions according to the joint process? And how motivated will they be to then implement the decisions the harmonized process produces?

If, for example, American and German colleagues are not happy with how they make decisions together, how motivated will they be to collaborate? Estimate the cost to your organization if suboptimal cross-Atlantic collaboration leads to a 5% decrease in productivity.

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