They are (not) like us

The Proclamation of the German Empire by Anton von WernerIn the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to 1871, the mobilization speed of the Germans and the French was very different at the beginning of the war. The Prussian general staff succeeded in moving powerful units to the imminent front quite quickly thanks to sophisticated rail logistics and the joint transfer of troops and material. At the same time, chaos still reigned on the French side. Units could be moved only slowly from their home bases because of inadequate logistics, and of those that reached the border, many were still waiting a long time for weapons and ammunition.

This difference in mobilization speed could have had a significant impact on the outcome of the war. It did not, however. For one simple reason: the Germans would have had to be aware of it. They weren't. To the contrary, they assumed that the French would be just as fast as they were and therefore decided to play it safe. The French, in return, assumed that the Germans were just as slow as they themselves were, so there was no reason to worry. The first advance of the war came from the French: The militarily nonsensical and, for the weaker side, risky occupation of Saarbrücken. Prussia ultimately won the war by a decisively – mobilization was not the only area in which it was superior to the French. However, if the Germans had been able to exploit their faster mobilization, victory might have been achieved even more quickly and with fewer losses.

The mistake behind this, which affected Germans and French alike in 1870, is one we encounter many times today as well: In case of doubt, one assumes that the other side with which one is in conflict is just like oneself, equipped with the same capabilities and the same knowledge. Written down in such abstract terms, it is obvious that this is quite nonsensical. That two people or two companies have exactly the same skills and knowledge, that is unrealistic. Nevertheless, it is easy to fall into this assumption: in one's own overestimation of oneself (like the French) or in overestimation of the other (like the Germans).

That's why it's worth sitting down in front of a white sheet of paper every now and then to write down what you really know for sure about your counterpart – without thinking first and foremost about yourself.

Written in April 2023 | Category: Corporate culture

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