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Cultural adaptation as a key factor for international projects

By Víctor Arias — March 9, 2016

The speed at which we integrate ourselves in different environments is essential for the success of a project

One of the golden rules that must be applied when carrying out international projects is to respect the cultures and customs with which we will interact and to integrate them as project elements.

I have had the chance to work on a number of business organization projects in the field of telecommunications, and my current experience in Nigeria has provided me with in-depth knowledge on a professional as well as a personal level.

Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria, is located along the Atlantic coast, on the Gulf of Guinea. The name was given by the Portuguese merchants who established their maritime port here, but in the region’s native language, the city is called Eko.

With its nearly 21 million residents, it is the most populated city in Africa, surpassing Cairo. Given the nearly horizontal layout of its residents (except for a few modernized areas) and the deficient civil infrastructures, life easily becomes a series of chaotic events that shock Western travelers, especially when they first set foot in the city.

Upon our arrival at dawn, as we made our way to the hotel (which took us nearly two hours) we were surprised to see that this African metropolis never sleeps. In the suburbs near the airport, people crowded around minibuses (parked on inexistent shoulders) to get to their jobs, invading and crossing the road in a carefree manner, resulting in the continuous sound of horns.

Street vendors made their way through rows of vehicles arbitrarily positioned in as many lanes as possible given the high traffic density. The nearly inexistent public lighting kept us in a paralyzed state of observation, stunned and speechless.

Faced with the situation before our eyes, we could only ask ourselves how locals are able to survive in this type of environment. Our Nigerian project partners explained the reality of the matter to us a short time later: the people of Lagos are accustomed to this way of life, and for them it is normal and part of their daily routines. They accept with resignation the reality of three-hour commutes to get to work (plus another three hours to return home). In fact, to avoid rush hour traffic, they tend to stay at the office at least a couple of hours longer than what is required, and they transform their workplace into the main point of personal coexistence, participating in after-work activities that help alleviate the distance from home.

It is important to be integrated in the group as quickly as possible and to become a member of the team throughout the project’s duration.

These circumstances have a direct effect on the business culture and on group dynamics. Due to the long work hours, work colleagues become a second family that they support nearly as much as their own family, thereby intensifying relationships and strengthening ties. Physical contact in the form of handshakes and hugs is a common occurrence at the beginning and also at the end of every chance meeting. In addition, several conveniently-located TVs are on throughout the day, resulting in the improvised creation of heated and noisy debates on all types of matters, such as current events, local politics, soccer scores, etc.

In this type of environment, it is important to become integrated in the group as soon as possible by participating in some of the activities that take place and forming part of the group throughout the project’s duration.

The work is done at a slower pace, and pressuring others to speed up interferes with relationships. Using assertive techniques is key for guiding situations in the right direction. The speed at which the connection with the group is established will affect the project’s progress and improve collaborations among the parties involved who are interested in its execution. At the end of the project, when returning home, you tend to feel as if you are leaving behind a second family.

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