ParadigmShift 2019:

Collaborate or stagnate: the choice confronting businesses in a time of change 

Effective collaboration doesn’t necessarily require technology - the band that welcomed delegates to Thoughtworks’ flagship ParadigmShift 2019 event in New Orleans with an effortless, inspired burst of hometown jazz was proof of that.


But two days that featured a range of industry and technology luminaries sharing insights and engaging in freewheeling discussions on the theme of Connect & Collaborate: Accelerating Value Creation made clear that technology is a potent enabler of the kind of collaboration that leads to better ways of working and new revenue opportunities. Provided, that is, it’s harnessed in the right way and combined with one other essential ingredient: people.  

There was a general consensus that in a hyper-connected world, collaboration has become the ‘secret sauce’ for enterprises trying to navigate constantly accelerating waves of digitally and demographic-driven change.

Dr. Anita Sands
Dr. Anita Sands

As Thoughtworks board member and technology veteran Dr. Anita Sands pointed out in her keynote address, businesses, especially large, successful ones, tend to be held back by the “inertia of incumbency” - meaning the practices that once served them so well are now slowing them down. 

“Inertia comes in many forms and may include things like … a business model centered on ownership in a world that’s increasingly valuing access, (or) a small number of well-defined partnerships in a world that’s increasingly realizing value across a large ecosystem with a large number of players,” she said.

The need to better connect different parts of the business and bring new thinking to the forefront means change “now requires as table stakes the ability to collaborate across boundaries,” said Lisa Kwan, a senior researcher and executive leadership coach at Harvard University. “Collaboration between our groups and teams is what keeps leaders up at night.”

The collaboration toolkit 

As the need for collaboration has advanced, so has what Kwan calls the need for “collaboration infrastructure” that facilitates it. This should break down business silos and open conduits for exchange to allow for the free flow of ideas and, crucially, data, which Thoughtworks global advisory lead Gary O’Brien pointed out has become a critical strategic asset for the ‘digitally fluent’ enterprise. 

“You can’t operate at (the necessary) pace when you’re over structured and over-governed,” Gary said. “You must create lightweight governance structures. The way to do that is you use data, you use test & learn cultures, you create a visibility and transparency inside your organization that makes decisions obvious.”

Thoughtworks principal consultant Zhamak Dehghani noted data-driven collaboration and decision-making requires shifting from standard models where data is the domain of siloed specialists, to a more versatile, democratic structure where it’s accessible to and informs all. 

“No distributed system works without having interoperability and standardization,” she explained. “Standardization is key to getting this ecosystem of data products to play together and to being able to join customer information across different domains.”

Organizations can also connect more dots by reducing dependence on traditional, mono-dimensional means of communication like conference calls and e-mail. Newer, more comprehensive collaboration platforms that integrate multiple programs and accommodate various forms of real-time interaction are better suited for a reality in which “modern work is more complex than ever and requires the people, the data and the apps to get jobs done,” said James Sherrett, senior technology strategist at messaging platform Slack. 

Companies at the event that have adopted collaboration infrastructure in some form testified to powerful results. More “elastic infrastructure” at leading Chilean airline LATAM has helped it accommodate up to 700 million visitors to its digital channels each year and paved the way for innovations such as an augmented reality tool that helps passengers measure the size of carry-on luggage, according to chief digital officer Dimitris Bountolos. 

Indonesian ‘multi-service’ platform company Gojek, meanwhile, not long ago managed to launch 16 products in just nine months and now regularly uses data to form its business hypotheses, CTO Ajey Gore said. 

Sanjay Cherian, VP of product strategy at Telus Health, explained how Canadian telecommunications provider Telus has used collaborative technology to create a virtual health ecosystem linking previously disconnected patients, pharmacists and providers to ultimately improve health outcomes at the national level.

The human side of the equation  

For all these successes, speakers also made it clear that many businesses are failing at collaboration, and that this is an area where building it doesn’t necessarily mean people will come. 

As Kwan put it, “having the structure to collaborate does not mean that your teams have the joint abilities to collaborate within that structure.”

Dr. Dominik Off, technology lead at Germany’s Jungheinrich Digital Solutions, was blunter: “Connecting machines, at least from my experience, is much easier than connecting people.” 


Experts and business leaders at the event cited a number of causes of collaboration failure. In a no-holds-barred presentation author and technology theorist Douglas Rushkoff advanced the provocative view that despite appearances to the contrary, “the underlying operating systems of business and technology are actually constructed to prevent collaboration.” This is because they contain an “anti-human” bias that seeks to limit the human creative capacity and extract, not build, value. 

Other delegates agreed the more human, emotional aspects of collaboration aren’t always given due consideration - and that technology sometimes exacerbates the situation. 

Cotential founder and CEO Erica Dhawan pointed out that around 70% of collaboration is now virtual, and suffers from a lack of empathy as a result. Intentionally or not, the cues and signals that make up “digital body language” - from choice of communication platform to use of emojis and the order of e-mail addresses - can have a profound impact on “trust, engagement, respect, the level of innovation your teams will create,” she said. 

The speed, brevity and ambiguity that typifies digital interactions can sow fear and decimate trust. And that nips the possibility of collaboration, which depends on people willingly speaking up, sacrificing autonomy and sharing resources, in the bud. 

“When people are fearful, their attentions, decisions and behaviors narrow,” said Kwan. “They’re not going to go out there and risk the experimentation and exploration that’s needed for collaboration to succeed.”

Networked leader, connected organization 

This means in addition to providing the technological foundation for collaboration through platforms and the freer exchange of data, businesses need to convince their people that collaboration is not only safe, but for their own, and a greater, good. 

Leaders can set the tone from the top by being deliberate and transparent in the way they communicate. “You have to focus on trust, and trust is made up of both being competent and having good character,” Lauren Woods, managing director, technology at Southwest Airlines, noted in a discussion with Thoughtworks chief talent officer Joanna Parke on the ‘Talent-Collaboration Connection.’

“And I learned something about character; it didn’t just matter that you had integrity or that you were a good person, it also really mattered that you were very intentional in talking about your intentions.”

In the current environment, the defining leadership trait may be what Dhawan calls ‘connectional intelligence’ - “the capability to unlock new and unrealized value by fully harnessing the power of our networks and relationships.” 

A leader is increasingly called on not to be the “oracle” but “to be really strong at building communities,” agreed O’Brien. 


Dr. Sands highlighted the necessity of providing sufficient space for the “cognitive diversity” - varying, even competing viewpoints and perspectives from people of different backgrounds or skill sets - needed to tackle unpredictability. But, she was quick to add, “as much as diversity and inclusion are necessary for survival, they unfortunately are far from sufficient. The holy grail in all of this is belonging.”

Business needs a cause 

Belonging was a word that came up multiple times throughout the two-day event, with virtually unanimous recognition that imparting a sense of belonging is the real key to getting people to cooperate, embrace change to the fullest and throw more of themselves into their work. 

While an open, inclusive environment is a start, belonging requires creating a culture that people want to belong to. “Every company builds two things - the products they sell and the culture inside the company.” said Sherrett. That culture, he added, should be “as explicit and celebrated as possible.” 

In Rushkoff’s view, culture should ultimately be constructed around the expertise of the company and the deepest needs it serves. At its best, culture not only convinces internal teams to collaborate, but is so strong that even “the consumers are wannabe employees. They’re aspiring, everyone in the culture is aspiring, to get inside.”

Looked at this way, collaboration not only has the potential to improve the business from within. As the basis for an open, connected organizational culture, it can expand outward to forge more meaningful connections with the company’s client base - and eventually, with society as a whole.

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