December 14, 2017


Project management advice, tips, tools and recommended resources for existing and aspiring project managers.

Project Story: How to Overcome Culture Challenges

By Linky van der Merwe

Success Stories SharedRecently we spoke to a project manager, Richard Price, who shared one of his many success stories which focuses around some interesting challenges he experienced delivering to a complex customer.

Convergent CRM and Billing Solution Project

It was a CRM and Billing project to deliver an end to end solution that ran almost 9 months with a company called Cerillion, a convergent billing specialist company based in the United Kingdom.

What made this project complex, is the fact that a complex system had to be implemented in Africa, in a country called Mauritania, close to the Sahara desert. It posed challenges with regards to the surroundings, the work culture and the language. Mauritania Desert

Project success despite challenges

The team consisted of 5 people, system analysts, solution architect and deployment experts and the project went according to plan.

However towards the end of the project there was an extra piece of work which the customer requested to be delivered; this was a deviation from scope that was not agreed in advance and signed off. The client insisted on making the change without a change request, it therefore was escalated to management.

As part of the culture, the vendor is treated in a certain way. For example for Steercom meetings, the project manager had to wait outside the CEO’s office for several hours, waiting their turn. Due to the scope having been agreed and signed upfront, the vendor could guide the customer’s CEO to convince him that a change request was required. They would eventually sign off the final acceptance certificate later, but the change was completed outside of project delivery.

The project had enough contingency, both from a cost and time perspective, to keep within budget and time constraints despite the various challenges. It was still delivered on budget and on time, and to the agreed specification.

Culture and Customs

Many challenges had to do with the country culture and the territory (3/4 consisting of Sahara semi-desert), hot and dry climate with frequent sandstorms and power cuts, that contributed to the project taking longer.

Different culture and customsMauritania consists of two main ethnical groups who are both Sunni Islam. Cultural differences could have derailed the project, but it was handled well by the team members, respect to all peoples ethnic and cultural differences was essential. As an example of the challenges the custom dictated the way women were treated; men were not allowed to shake their hands and needed to be very respectful of how to talk to them. A woman could talk to woman and a man to other men. This made project communications challenging to manage.

Integration challenges

Some of the contingency reserve needed to be used towards the end of the project to manage the integration issues. The meant project team had to stay for two more weeks under tough conditions. They had to work very long hours to complete the project.

The cause of the integration issues was due to the specifications of the interfaces that the new system had to connect into not being clear and accurate. The system that they were testing against was not in sync with the specifications provided. An engineer was brought in to advise how the system was working and to reconfigure the system to specify how it was setup to integrate into. He provided more details required for the integration. This caused delays and the team’s on-site work was extended from two to four weeks. Circumstances were inconvenient with limited possibilities for accommodation and refreshments.

Project Framework and Relationships

Frustration was experienced knowing that the team couldn’t do the work in the time planned. The PM had to trust that contingencies would be enough.

The PM had to rely on the project framework and proper process that was followed since the beginning. He realised the importance to follow processes and with stakeholders to obtain sign-off for deliverables and documentation.

The client PM was initially very aggressive and resistant to follow proper process. It was essential to stick to proper process as to not do so would have made the project much more chaotic.

Lessons Learnt

An important success factor was to build relationships with stakeholders. One needed to understand where they are coming from, stay patient and professional with them.

Some project team members were surrounded by customer team members from a different culture giving pressure to give in to their demands. However, the PM had to keep to agreed scope and address the demands outside of scope through proper change management process.

The PM needs to be completely aware of where finances play a role, ask the right questions and keep track of payments made. Monitor exposure of projects through-out especially for companies in the third world.

In conclusion, delivering a project is the same, no matter within which culture or country it takes place. You need to adhere to PM standards and processes in order to deliver projects successfully. Also be cognisant and respectful of cultural differences and customs which dictate communications and how relationships are built.


Richard Price has been in project management for the past 13 years. After graduating with a Degree in IT he worked up through the IT industry and became a PM after deciding he wanted more control over the outcome of the delivered project. He is currently working as a program and project manager.


Richard can be contacted on +27 82 756 6874 or via e-mail at