“It’s only a car!”

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, Jörg, it‘s only a car!” We all erupted in laughter. Jörg 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.

The customer is always right

“The customer is always right” is a very common phrase in American business. It was first made popular in the early 20th century when it was used as the slogan for Marshall Field’s Department Store in Chicago and London’s Selfridges Store (founded by American Harry Gordon Selfridge).

Both of these stores became extremely profitable, primarily because they had a reputation for good customer service. As a result, many American businesses have attempted to model their processes on the principle that the customer is always right.

In 1911, in an attempt to promote a local business, the Kansas City Star newspaper included an article about the business owner George E. Scott, saying: “Scott has done in the country what Marshall Field did in Chicago, Wanamaker did in New York and Selfridge in London. In his store he follows the Field rule and assumes that the customer is always right.“

Coffee Burns

In 1992, 79 year old Stella Liebeck bought a cup of coffee from a McDonald’s in New Mexico, spilled it on her lap, suffered multiple third-degree burns, and required skin grafts on her inner thighs and elsewhere. She subsequently sued McDonald’s.

Although the jury found Liebeck to be partly responsible for her injuries, based on evidence that McDonald’s coffee was unreasonably hot and had caused other injuries in the past, the jury decided to award Stella the equivalent of two days’ worth of coffee sales revenue for the entire restaurant chain. Some of the evidence presented at the trial includes:

1) An engineer from the University of Texas and the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Burn Care and Rehabilitation both testified that the risk of harm from the coffee was unacceptable.

2) An expert witness testified that the number of burns the coffee caused was insignificant compared to the number of cups of coffee sold every year.

3) A McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that the coffee at the serving temperature was not fit for consumption because it would burn the throat.

4) After several other similar lawsuits, McDonald’s knew about the risk of serious burns from its coffee, but did not warn customers of the risk.

Partial Deliverables

Americans often accept – and can work with – partial deliverables. Partial not in the sense of a pizza not fully baked, or a car without the steering wheel, or a report for senior level management with facts but no analysis, but in the sense of so-called 80% solutions.

In fact, it is often the customer, whether a colleague, another internal organization or an external, who is satisfied with the imperfect or incomplete deliverable. 80%, in some circumstances even less, will do the trick, it gets the job done, has met the specifications.

It is not uncommon for an American colleague requesting something – the deliverable – to be unclear about what it is they need. Americans move fast, sometimes too impatiently. They are asked to deliver something. In order to do so, they in turn ask others for something.

If speed is of the essence, they don’t have the time to wait for the perfect product, to even define exactly their need. Often the nature of the subject matter makes it difficult for them to specify the deliverable.

In such cases, the seemingly incomplete product delivered quickly meets, possibly even exceeds, the needs of the requesting party, whereas waiting for the official complete product can mean unnecessary risk. Better o.k. and on time, than perfect but too late.

Fail Fast, Fail Often

“Fail Fast, Fail Often, Fail Everywhere”. By John Donohue. The New Yorker. May 31, 2015.

“Discussions about failure may come more easily in America in part because our businesspeople are so good at it. The failure rate for startups, using a yardstick in which investors lose everything (i.e., all of the company’s assets are liquidated), is between thirty and forty per cent, according to Shikhar Ghosh, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School. 

The rate is seventy to eighty per cent if failure is defined as not meeting the projected return on investment, and ninety to ninety-five per cent if it is measured by failing to beat a declared projection.

Despite these statistics, Americans remain remarkably optimistic about the process—last year, venture-capital companies staked forty-eight billion dollars in pursuit of big returns. And the fact that these investments are concentrated in a relatively small number of companies has not seemed to inspire much fear in prospective entrepreneurs. 

According to a study done by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, a project run by Babson College and the London Business School, in 2014 among respondents between the ages of eighteen and sixty-four who were not already running their own businesses, just thirty per cent reported that fear of failure would stop them from starting one. 

And more than half of those Americans surveyed believed that there are good opportunities to strike out on one’s own.

Customer Reviews 

Customer reviews can make or break a company in the US. Especially now that the internet gives customers a way to instantly compliment or complain about service (and to make sure that their opinion is available for anyone to see) one good or bad review can drastically change the number of customers a company has.

In 2012, after Brandon Cook from New Hampshire posted a Facebook story about a Panera manager named Sue making a special order of clam chowder for his grandmother and giving her a free box of cookies as well. The restaurant became much more popular. Several people who would not otherwise have eaten at this restaurant went there, and commented about it online. Some of the Facebook comments that people made were:

Cyrus Twirpwhirler: My family is eating at Panera tonight because of this story. Way to go Sue and Panera!

Snow Case: That is so cool, I’m a customer already, but I like them even more now.

Daniel Julian: That is so cool!!! Have to visit Panera soon.

Sore Losers

No culture raises its children to be sore losers: someone who cannot admit defeat, makes excuses, challenges the final results.

Americans certainly do not like a sore loser. Instead, they respect a losing political candidate, sports team, work colleague who admits defeat, neither blames others, nor complains about the election, game or job being „unfair.“

In fact, in America many a (temporary) loser has come back to become a winner, primarily because they blamed themselves, looked at their own errors, and then corrected them. And they remained persistent.

The converse is the gracious winner: the person, team or organization which does not boast, brag or celebrate in an exaggerated way. Most importantly, gracious winners go out of their way to compliment, even praise, their opponent. Gracious winners stay small, don‘t puff themselves up. Modesty.

Sore: causing pain or distress; painfully sensitive; tender, hurt or inflamed so as to be or seem painful; attended by difficulties, hardship, or exertion; angry, irked. From Middle English sor, from Old English sār; akin to Old High German sēr sore and probably to Old Irish saeth distress.

Gracious: marked by kindness and courtesy, tact and delicacy; characterized by charm, good taste, generosity of spirit, and the tasteful leisure of wealth and good breeding. Latin gratiosus, enjoying favor, agreeable, from gratia.

Constructive Criticism

Critique: A detailed analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical, or political theory. Derived from mid 17th century from French, based on Greek kritikē tekhnē ‘critical art”.

Constructive criticism is legitimate criticism – fair, objective, well grounded. It is constructive when its purpose, tone and spirit aim to help the other person recognize, understand and then correct their weaknesses. Constructive criticism is helpful.

Employee evaluation helps management to measure performance while maintaining motivation and reducing employee turnover. It has three components: praise work well done; address areas of improvement; recommend improvement measures. Employee evaluations also serve as documentation of future goals to be reviewed at a later date.

There are 58,885 books on self-improvement on Amazon.com. The most popular areas for self-improvement are money management, healthy living, attitude, speaking skills, time management, and interpersonal relations.

Popular titles include “The Power of Self-Coaching: The Five Essential Steps to Creating the Life You Want” by Joseph J. Luciani, “The Secret Art of Self-Development: 16 Little-Known Rules for Eternal Happiness & Freedom” by Karl Moore, “50 Self-Help Classics: 50 Inspirational Books to Transform Your Life from Timeless Sages to Contemporary Gurus” by Tom Butler-Bowdon, and “I Had It All The Time: When Self-Improvement Gives Way to Ecstasy” by Alan Cohen.

Sweaty Palms

There has been a lot of research on the benefits of trusting intuition.

In a study conducted in 1997, researchers asked subjects to play a card game in which the goal was to win the most money. The subjects chose cards from two piles, one of which was rigged to provide big wins followed by big losses, while the other deck provided small wins but almost no losses.

On average it took about 80 cards before the subjects could identify which deck was which. However, after about 50 cards they claimed that they “had a hunch about which deck was safer” and after only 10 cards the sweat glands on the subjects’ palms would open every time that they reached for the big wins/losses deck.


The word deadline was first used during the American Civil War to describe a line which, if a prisoner crossed it, could result in the prisoner’s death. Even though most deadlines today won’t end in murder, Americans still feel that correlation when talking about a deadline, and they tend to treat it like a life-or-death matter.

Deadline: a line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot;  a date or time before which something must be done; the time after which copy is not accepted for a particular issue of a publication. First known use was in 1864.

Examples: She worked on her composition right up until the deadline. We had to hurry to meet the deadline. The project was completed a week past its deadline. The deadline for submitting college applications is April 19th. They’re working under a deadline.

Deadlines and recovery from missed deadlines are so important to Americans that many job interviewers specifically ask applicants to describe a time that they missed a deadline and how they recovered from it. If you type missed deadline into Google, you’re immediately bombarded with self-help websites describing how to recover from a missed deadline.

In 2013, the Prince George’s County school system lost $1.4 million of state funds when it failed to approve school construction contracts within their two year deadline. Although the school district was very close to approving these contracts, no extension was given, and the money had to be returned.