Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Can International Travel Help You Master Change?

When driving breakthrough initiatives in an organization, culture change has to be built into the strategy. While culture is considered a soft skill, it is one to the most difficult initiatives to orchestrate. As a rule, people tend to hold on to old ways. To gain deeper insight into this issue, I used international travel to simulate culture change.

From 1996-1999, I lived in 8 Latin American countries – Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and El Salvador. During my travels, I experienced change in every sense. My stay in each country ranged 2 days to 20 months. I lived in the jungle and the city. And I encountered
at least 5 different languages – English, Spanish, Mopan, Quiche and an indigenous language of Costa Rica.

When I left the US, I spoke one language – English. When I returned, I was fluent in Spanish and proficient in Portuguese. I also learned a few sentences in Mopan Mayan.

In addition to learning languages, I learned to embrace change. My journey started in Belize. I spent nearly 2 months with Mayan Indians in a village with 330 people, no electricity or running water. If you can imagine, I woke up everyday to a beautiful jungle in a village built on top of unexcavated ruins. I stayed with a family and worked with the father and son. In 1996, the Mayans were an agrarian society with no machines for farming.

I arrived in Belize after living in Washington, DC for 15 years. Before that, I was a Jersey boy with tremendous exposure to New York City. Yet, in Belize, I found myself in a world that had no similarities to my past experiences. When I worked with them, I helped cut down 100 acres of jungle with a machete in order to plant crops. After cutting down the jungle, we used a stick to make a hole in the ground and dropped 7 seeds of corn. When you harvest that corn, the jungle will have grown back. Therefore, it is necessary to chop your way through the jungle to pick an ear of corn.

As you can imagine, I had never encountered this experience in DC, NJ or NY. Many people would think this experience made me see how lucky I was to be born in the US. I had another perspective. I saw it as an opportunity to become more of the person I have never been. In a sense, it required me to let go of almost everything I knew. I had to learn more efficient ways to function in a new environment. I learned to appreciate other people’s ways, instead of trying to change them.

As I adapted to their ways, I found them beneficial. For example, there were tremendous health benefits. You can’t imagine how youthful you become when you live in a clean environment. In addition, I developed a new value for community. It was amazing to see how the people depended on one another for survival. Therefore, cooperation, instead of competition, was essential. More importantly, the experience gave me a new perspective on hard work and resourceful ways to accomplish tasks. As smart as I thought I was, I really didn’t have all the answers. I relied on the expertise of the Mayan Indians.

Furthermore, as I continued my journey to other countries, everywhere I went, there I was with all of my USA upbringing. However, it was apparent that what I learned in each country helped me make a seamless transition to the next country or city. At some point, regardless of the country I was in, the people thought I was a native of that country.

Now, imagine an organization designed to adjust to change regardless of the competitive or economic environment. When change initiatives are led effectively, the company may be positioned to be a market leader. To do that, change has to be built in to the culture. It would be done in the same way my travels fostered change as a pleasant part of the journey. The company that desires a strong competitive edge will be able to provide employees with experiential tools that empower them to constantly navigate through new environments.

What do you think? I’m open to ideas. Or if you want to write me about a specific topic, let me know. 


  1. I really appreciated your idea of absorbing and accepting the cultural change outside one's domain. Although I, personally, as an Indian lady, could not taste such cultural variation as you did, yet, what little I could find opportunity to taste within my country surely transformed my outlook and deepened my perception. I wish I could learn so many languages you did.
    However, what eluded my limited comprehension is in what way can this change in outlook and broadening of vision can heip us position our company as market leader in a highly competitive urbanised world? You have mentioned about places where life strategies and life mechanisms work differently. So how can breakthrough initiatives in an organization be influenced by them? How can one connect the two worlds?

    Mandira Mazumder

    1. Thanks, Mandira. I am glad to have you as a visitor to my blog. India is a big country with many languages and cultures. I can only imagine how rich your experiences were.

      Your questions are really good and almost require an article to properly address them. To be succinct, I will state the following:

      There are many reasons people avoid breakthroughs. The simplest reason is like the Wright Brothers and flying. Most people believed it was impossible. It’s the same for breakthroughs. They never attempt or they set out to prove it’s impossible.

      At the same time, breakthroughs can have fearful implications for some people. Most people believe they are smart and they know what they are doing. If a breakthrough were possible, the knowledge they have would have figured out the breakthrough already. Therefore, for some, the experience of a breakthrough can conjure a feeling of inadequacy or feeling stupid. It makes them want to hide the fact they couldn’t figure out the breakthrough before. And it can make them question how smart they really were in the past. As a result, breakthroughs are often avoided. People would rather be right about their existing identity and paradigm than be made wrong by a breakthrough.

      On the other hand, through travel, you gain access to new possibilities and new thinking. When you constantly train your mind to embrace new cultural experiences, you become accustomed to being stretched outside of your comfort zone. In addition, travel to foreign cultures alters your perspective of yourself and the world. While those alterations may be subtle, someone like you may find it easier to figure out solutions that are outside of what the people in your industry see.

      In many cases, people who consistently produce breakthroughs are people who train their mind to see and function beyond the identity they acquired from their native environment. Travel to foreign lands is not necessary. It helps.

      Too often, people lack exploratory natures. They opt for being neatly packaged identities filled with presuppositions about the way life and business is. They also believe that everyone else sees the world the same as they do. Unfortunately, this can result in little patience for new and unexplored possibilities. Why? Their presuppositions have already informed them of what is possible or impossible. Furthermore, they may avoid anything that creates confusion and uncertainty, which is usually part of the pathway to a breakthrough. Steve Jobs, for example, created the iPad in the 80s. However, the board believed he failed and demoted him. They had no tolerance for the confusion and uncertainty of a breakthrough.

      In an organization, people like yourself should be invited to brainstorming sessions. You should be included when formulating solutions. More importantly, you should be consulted when the company wants to innovatively solve a problem for a customer. You will have the patience and the curiosity to ask the right questions, instead of trying to give smart answers. People who travel have a slightly different thought process and are accustomed to asking “what”, “why” and “how”. When they receive the answers to their questions, their minds are often altered.

      Consistent innovation is a thought process. The company Procter & Gamble is known to house executives with families in India. They do that to observe how people use consumer products. When those executives ask “what”, “why” and “how”, they go back to their offices to create some breakthrough product that would not have been created without the trip to India.

      I would love to hear your feedback to this response.

      I have another blog post that outlines the kind of culture one needs to create to produce breakthroughs intentionally. See: http://turnaroundip.blogspot.com/2011/10/are-breakthroughs-matter-of-luck-part-i.html.

      Ted Santos