stubborn 1

Tradition vs. New

“Why do Germans seem to support (maybe even promote) using traditional engineering design versus newer, less complicated, and in most cases, less expensive design?

It seems that even experienced engineers will not question or go against established engineering practices even when there are good reasons to do so. Why?“

John Otto Magee

Your question takes us to a fundamental difference between Germans and Americans.


Germans honor and value tradition. For them the past is highly relevant. One doesn’t break from tradition without having very good reasons. Germans view things that are new – or pretend to be new – with a certain degree of skepticism. They are sensitive to the difference between claiming to be new and actually being new.

Americans believe in new. Hardly any consumer product can survive without claiming to be “new and improved.” For Americans new is fresh, innovative, young, promising, better than before.

In contrast to the Germans, and to continental Europeans in general, Americans are often skeptical of things which are too linked to the past. Tradition can mean old, encrusted, inflexible, immovable. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is seldom persuasive in the U.S. context.

Less complicated

Germans are complicated. They think in complicated ways. They can handle complicated situations and subjects. They believe that intelligence is the ability to deal with complexity as it is.

To think, read, write, explain complicated things is a sign of sophistication. And it is. Assuming, of course, you get the complexity right. Less complicated can be interpreted by Germans as simple, simplified, even simple-minded.

Americans are less complicated, and complicating. They value the ability to handle complexity in a pragmatic way. KISS. “Keep it simple, stupid!”

Intelligent is the person who can explain complex matter to the “man on the street”.  Americans view complicated as complicating, not workable, not robust.

Less cost

The Germans say Was nichts kostet, ist auch nichts. Literally: What costs nothing, is nothing. Meaning also, what hardly costs anything, is hardly anything. Germans are expensive. What they produce is expensive.

Germans seldom sell – or buy – via price. If an engineering design approach leads to lower costs, they’ll suspect that less (and less quality) engineering work is being performed. They’ll look for the shortcuts made, the quality sacrificed.

Americans – whether they admit to it or not – buy and sell far more based on price. If work can be reduced, saved, minimized via a new process, they’ll do it, as long as the quality does not suffer too much.

Even experienced engineers

Actually, it’s the experienced German engineers who will be most inclined to be skeptical of a new design process. Why? We all feel comfortable with our habits. If we do good work, or at least believe so, why should we change what works?

Who likes change?

Human nature. Think about it. Engineering design processes are all about how the work is done. And “how the work is done” goes to the heart of our self-understanding, as engineers, as marketers, as supply chain specialists, as human resources professionals, etc. How the work is done also determines the tools we use. Very basic, very pragmatic.

Who likes to change how they think and how they work? I don’t, even though I know that it is often necessary.

And then there is the question of power. Those who have the say about how the work is done, have the power in the working relationship. People sense that immediately, consciously or unconsciously, explicitly or implicitly.

So unfortunately, there are all kinds of barriers to you getting your German colleagues to take an honest look at what you are proposing. Working across cultures is not easy. I suspect it was never easy, and never will be.


I recommend you take a look at CI’s content on two topics: Persuasion and Process. Do some reflecting. Then ask your German colleagues to do the same. That is Step 1. Understand the cultural differences.

Then – Step 2 – engage with them about what you are proposing. Keep an eye on possible misunderstanding and misinterpretation based on those cultural differences.

This is more about culture than engineering. And remember, the American engineer is an American first, then an American engineer. Same for the German engineer.

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