There is a lot to be said for German innovation. Take for instance Robert Bosch, whose electronics company became a role model of German engineering and ingenuity. A skilled inventor, Bosch was a man of extraordinary vision. He inspired his teams to find new ways to perfect and improve Bosch products.
At the same time, Bosch was committed to the health and well-being of his employees. He once said, “I don’t pay good wages because I have a lot of money; I have a lot of money because I pay good wages.” To understand what he meant by this, consider that many German businesses are built on innovation, which evolves and continues over generations. These companies benefited from the long-term loyalty of their employees. Over the generations, they contributed to the “Made in Germany” brand becoming identified with well-designed, highly efficient, quality products.
Melding German-American Cultures
Over the last three years, I have experienced the German business culture in launching a United States presence of a Bremen-headquartered business. Balancing this well-established German company’s approach to business with Silicon Valley’s culture in which time-to-market product roll-outs are thought of in quarters, instead of years, has been an interesting and educational experience for me.
If there’s one way to describe the difference between German and American business culture, it would be acceleration. For better or worse, U.S.-based businesses must compete in a market driven by capturing first-mover advantage in a specific market. While German companies are known for practicing a formal separation between public and private life, many U.S. operations employees follow the philosophy that we do what it takes to grow the business. Many of us work nights, weekends and holidays, often double-time to make quarterly objective deadlines.
Lessons Learned From A Successful Marriage
There are many benefits to the marriage of these two cultures. Our German colleagues’ technical excellence, combined with our accelerated marketing, has been a winning combination. Through this cultural marriage, I have learned a great deal about what it takes to last in the ever-changing, global technology landscape, and I’ve had to, truth be told, make some adjustments to my way of thinking. Here are five characteristics I think all businesses can embrace:
1. Demand continuous improvement. As Bosch made clear, static design is not acceptable. Striving for perfection and always thinking of the next innovation is the key to business longevity. The slowdown in iPhone sales is a perfect example. Innovation slowed down and the next version of some models really didn’t offer enough distinctive changes to make new purchases compelling. Those companies who have successful cultures of innovation have a few things in common including a place to pose ideas and share with employees across the enterprise; a no-judgment atmosphere to encourage ideas without fear; positive reinforcement for ideas that move to the next level of development; and most importantly, a failure is okay philosophy so employees feel comfortable bringing the next set of ideas forward.
2. Be open to disruptive ideas. Germany is an engineering country. By its standards, the IT sector is very young, moves at incredible speed and has disruptive powers — a contrast to Germany’s multi-generational, here for the long-term philosophy. That being said, Germany has demonstrated its openness to disruption by looking to Silicon Valley for digital innovation. The lesson here: the door swings both ways when it comes to allowing your teams to look beyond their cultural comfort zone. Encouraging disruption, particularly in multi-national enterprises, requires action on two fronts. Leadership needs to define a philosophy that doesn’t try to disregard cultural personality traits but instead, creates a company-wide culture that celebrates the individual. Then that philosophy must be nurtured so that individuals feel empowered and comfortable in their daily work environment.
3. Love your team and mean it. Work-life balance is one of the hallmarks of German business culture. While the U.S. tech culture tends to blur this difference, promoting a healthy balance between work and lifestyle is one of the ways to encourage employee retention. With unemployment now at its lowest level since 1969, employees have more leverage than ever before. Beyond competitive salaries and the typical perks, it takes a culture that supports family and recreation time to avoid too frequent onboarding and offboarding of employees. It’s imperative that benefits programs incorporate the holistic approach to the work-life that employees want today.
4. Make efficiency a priority. While Germany has come to be synonymous with efficiency, U.S. entrepreneurs love the expression “time-to-market.” But there are many scenarios in which companies lose their edge because development and production are simply too slow. An interesting statistic: German work hours are lower than many countries.Most businesses work a 40-hour, five-day week. The message is: Startups and early-stage companies need to think about how efficiency improvements can be made to get to market faster. Eliminating department silos is a great start in improving efficiency. If software developers are in better alignment with business strategy and better integrated with marketing and sales objectives, shared time-to-market goals can be achieved.
5. Protect your brand and keep it current. Mercedes-Benz, one of the strongest brands in the world, also knows when it’s time to innovate to make sure its brand stays relevant. Expanding into more utility vehicles and adding electric and autonomous vehicles to the mix ensures the company remains a global leader. For technology companies, protecting your brand is critical since social media now wreaks brand damage on a regular basis.
Digital Innovation Is A Blended Culture
Working with an established German technology leader these last three years has shown me the great results companies can achieve by blending the digital innovation and marketing talent that resides in the United States, and Silicon Valley, with Germany’s engineering talent that has a multi-generational track record in bringing innovative products to market. Germany has proven it is open to disruptive new technologies while U.S. companies are learning to take a page from German culture that promotes efficiency and brand longevity.