June 10, 2021

Reimagining Collaboration with Phil Simon | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

Reimagining Collaboration with Phil Simon | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Phil Simon, a dynamic keynote speaker, and world-renowned technology and collaboration authority and an award-winning author of eleven business books and counting, most recently Reimagining Collaboration: Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and the Post-COVID World of Work. Phil Simon shares how to more effectively use technology in leading our organizations in a changing world of work. 



Some highlights:


Phil Simon talks about how the pandemic accelerated adoption and use of technology


 Phil shares how technology can help people thrive at work


How the hub-spoke model of collaboration can help nurture a positive organizational culture


Phil Simon on how to choose the right Hub and Spokes for greater collaboration


Phil’s take on the hybrid future of work and the challenges ahead


Also mentioned in this episode:


Toni Morrison, American novelist, essayist, book editor, and college professor


Bryan Sommer, author of  Book- Digital with impact



Connect with Phil Simon:


Phil Simon Twitter


Phil Simon LinkedIn


Phil Simon Website


Phil Simon Amazon


Reimagining Collaboration: Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and the Post-COVID World of Work


Message Not Received: Why Business Communication Is Broken and How to Fix It




Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:



More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 



Mahan Tavakoli:

Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Phil Simon. He's an award-winning author of 11 business books. Most recently re-imagining collaboration, which is the book we spend most of our time talking about. Because while we are all using technology, more so, for many of us in the remote work world, it is important to know how to use that technology in our organizations and how to think about the technology as we lead our organizations for greater collaboration at the end of the day, that should be the goal for the technology that we are using.


Now, I really appreciate hearing from all of you also Mahan@mahantavakoli.Com. There's a microphone icon on Partneringleadership.com. You can leave voice messages for me there. I love hearing your voice messages. Don't forget, depending on your platform of choice to follow and or subscribe to the podcast. And finally, for those of you that enjoy it on Apple, I really appreciate a rating and review that will help more people find these episodes and benefit from them as they lead their organizations for greater meaning and greater impact.


Now, here is my conversation with Phil Simon.


Phil Simon. Welcome to Partnering Leadership Podcast. Thrilled to have you on with me. 


Phil Simon:

Thank you for having me Mahan, happy to be here. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

Now, you have written eleven books. So sometimes I wonder what you do on your free time, but we'd love to have a conversation with you in this episode on your most recent book, reimagining collaboration.


Before we get to that, Phil would love to know a little bit about your upbringing and how that has impacted the kind of person you've become.


Phil Simon:

I grew up in Northern New Jersey and went to school for undergrad at Carnegie Mellon, then grad school at Cornell and those were both very good schools. So it impressed upon me the need to work hard to ask questions, to do research, to get uncomfortable sometimes. And because particularly Carnegie Mellon was so difficult, um, when I've had to face consulting or writing challenges, or even in the new book I write about when I went down to Brazil and there was a major miscommunication about what I needed to do and had to scramble. It just gave me the confidence that I'd be able to overcome adversity that in a lot of luck and hard work and hopefully it's led to at least a little bit of success. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

It has led to that success and it has led to a lot of great thinking with respect to both technology tools and other factors that lead to collaboration. 


Now, you mentioned in your book also that humans from the very beginning had to learn how to collaborate with each other.


So in your view, what does that term collaboration mean? 


Phil Simon:

It’s really working together Mahan to get something done. It's that simple. As I write it and I think it's chapter two, many times we conflate terms. We talk about communication, but we mean collaboration. Well, I can communicate very clearly, right? Because communicate means to make common, but that doesn't mean that we work together well because of personality differences, or schedules or it's different than coordination where people are trying to synchronize their activities so I thought it was very important if on a book on collaboration to define the terms early on.


I think it was Churchill, but I could never find it when I Googled it who said something to the effect of success begins with a common understanding of terms. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

Yes, it truly does. So organizations right now have been thrown into big challenges with respect to remote work and everything else, which you also say it's more of an acceleration of the use of technology than anything else.


Phil Simon:

Sure and to be fair, this isn't alone. Remote work has been taking place in some form or another for a very long time. You can argue that if you were a painter, you could've worked at home, right? Long before the internet or the web existed. But yes I mean, e-commerce has taken off. I think it's gone from 18% to 28% in the last year of total commerce in the United States.


Certainly, online education was popular. Now it's much more popular and the future of education, I think will also be hybrid. Telemedicine is another great example. So, many smart cookies have said that the pandemic hasn't necessarily caused change as it has accelerated existing things that were already taking place.


So another quote from the book I found out was, for when I'm researching, it was from Vladimir Lenin. Sometimes decades happen in weeks, sometimes weeks happen in decades, right. We're seeing decades happen in weeks. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

We have seen that and with respect to the technology and how it's used, you also mentioned Fubini, law, and tech, which I loved.


Phil Simon:

Yes, I just came across that in a friend of mine, Brian Sommer who wrote a book called Digital with impact. It's about digital transformation and I was reading it and borrowed this notion of, Fubini's law, which for the listeners means effectively and I'm just summarizing here, but we don't really change the technology. You'll change, but we don't really react to that.


But then some event happens that causes us to change. So we do change our behaviors and then the cycle repeats itself. So something has to happen for us to change and COVID-19 is certainly one of those events that caused a shuffling of the deck. Again, it cost a number of different dimensions. 


Mahan Tavakoli

Now, Phil, I find with that change that COVID-19 has caused organizations have gone down two separate paths.


One is as you know, tracking software sales have also gone drastically through the roof. Managers wanting to know minute by minute what their people are doing and others that are trying to use collaboration tools effectively to help people really thrive. 


So how do you see collaboration tools being used to help people thrive rather than track and monitor?


Phil Simon:

I think that's a fair point. In fact, early in the book, I described how there were some CIOs or CTOs that decided to invest in monitoring software. And to be fair, there are legitimate security concerns with having employees work from home. If there is no VPN or their password to their router is admin and that can get hacked and they get it in networks and bad things happen.


If given the choice between spending a dollar on collaboration tech and a dollar on tracking software, I'd spend it on collaboration tech because you could have as much software as you want. Particularly when people are working at home, they might find a way to goof off and not get things done.


But having written both Slack and Zoom for dummies Mahan, it was just obvious to me that people were barely scratching the surface. These tools could do so much more than. In the case of zoom, make video calls, from the case of Slack and Microsoft teams effectively use it as email 2.0, there was a lot more there, that people either were unwilling to experiment with or knew about it, but just decided not to for whatever reason.


So I really set out to write a holistic book about the power of these internal collaboration hubs and how you can connect with very little technical skill effectively, any third-party app, or what I call a spoke. So that hub-spoke model of collaboration, I think, is at the heart of the book, and even though these days, future workbooks are a dime a dozen. I did not see one out there that took this particular approach. So I forget- I think it was Tony Morrison who said, if the book you want to write doesn't exist, then you have to write it by the way. I'm probably the first person to quote Lenin and Tony Morrison in the same episode show. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

You are and that's great. That's part of the fun personality that you have that also comes across in the stories that you're telling your book, which I love that you mentioned the hub and spoke model, which is actually a great way to think about this for leaders as they think about technology for their organizations. 


Can you talk a little bit more about what would constitute a hub and then the spokes from those hubs?


Phil Simon:

Sure. Just as an example, it's something like 115 million users of Microsoft Teams understand that you can use it to send messages, right. To a group or through a channel or really to everyone in an organization. So to that extent, it resembles what email can do. But in the case of Microsoft, you can essentially plug in any app.


So you can have, for example, with Teams make it. Easy to set up an appointment in Outlook or you could present in PowerPoint, right. To everyone, as opposed to setting up a separate Zoom call. Right. You can certainly install a Zoom app for Teams and that gets into hubs and spokes, but you can use the tools in a much more holistic way than people are accustomed to using, but it gets even better than that Mahan. You can link to third-party apps as well because I'll bet you a Coke that for the listeners, they may be Microsoft Office 365 users, but they may use another tool. Maybe it's Trello or Asana for project management. Maybe it's a CRM application like Salesforce. Maybe it's a ticketing system like Zendesk. And these third-party apps or spokes effectively tie into the hubs. So just as an example, if someone fills out a form on a website, let's say it's a WordPress, a popular content management system that runs, I think 38% of the web. I can configure Teams or Slack to pipe in that notification. So it takes place within the hub. That's one fewer email that I get. I've got the context I can see who else is in the hub. Who's got a green status light, who can follow up with that. I can set a reminder. I can have all of my conversations taking place in one place, which creates an incredibly valuable knowledge repository.


And if you think about three to five years from now, when I write about this in chapter 15 of the book, artificial intelligence, and machine learning mean that technology will be able to make all these amazing recommendations and discoveries.


So the sooner that organizations adopt the hubs and specifically the Hub-Spoke model, the better off they'll be. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

And Phil I know in addition, obviously, to being an author and a speaker, you work in consult with organizations also. Many of the organizations that I deal with have a mish-mash of hubs and spokes that are not well thought through.


How would you recommend for organizations to think about the right hub to pick and then the spokes to build on top of that hub? 


Phil Simon:

Yes, in short, I'd say by the book, because I've got more questions than answers. I'm not smart enough to have listed in a 284-page book what a mid-sized healthcare organization should do in the United States compared to one in Europe. There are different pieces of legislation, different cultures, different norms, different employees, different business processes, and different systems.


But there are a lot of considerations. Yes, the features of these hubs are converging over time. So, whether it's some Salesforce which now owns Slack or Google or Facebook or Citrix or Zoom or Microsoft Teams, they're all paying attention to what they're doing. 


Now, if you are implementing a hub and Slack, for example with Slack Connect has a particularly robust feature that lets you connect to external organizations and Microsoft may not have that yet. You could wait for Microsoft to develop it, try to find out when it's on their product roadmap or you may decide, you know what, we need to pull the trigger right now. That's just one example. Of course, the free version of Slack provides some functionality and it's pretty powerful, but not as much as the paid version.


So they're going to be other organizations that say, well, we already pay for Mic(Microsoft) office 365, Teams is included. We don't have to pay anything else and we choose not to do that. So there are a lot of considerations from cultural to financial.  You might have specific partnerships with companies and they say, well, you know- if you're consulting and this is why I use Teams, Zoom and Slack, I can't very well and make this point in the book, tell my publisher, well, I use Slack, I don't use Teams right. They use Teams so I can either opt for email or teams and I'd say, well, I guess I'm using Teams because Teams is much more better for this type of thing than email. The benefits of the HubSpot model are manifold.


But I guess one of the biggest benefits of a hub and spokes model is having all of your information in one place. You're not searching through an inbox with a hundred thousand messages or Dropbox. Employees waste by some estimates, 30 to 45 minutes per day, just trying to find basic files. Well, if you know that everything exists in the hub, you don't have to look anywhere else. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

It makes things a lot easier. Now, again, for the leaders that are thinking through this process, I find myself frustrated. That the leaders I deal with, I saw an article in fast company was 111 absent tips to work smarter.


So the leader can spend all their time on trying to understand the functionality of the technology. How would you recommend, obviously, in addition to reading some of the questions that you ask and some of the answers that you give in the book, how would they learn to implement the technology in order for it to serve collaboration without necessarily needing to know the specific functionalities of each level of the hub and each one of the spokes?


Phil Simon:

Okay, well, that's a big question, let me try to break it down. I recommend in this book that organizations pick a lane. Right now as an independent, and I'm sure you can appreciate it, you might have to learn to use five or six different project management tools or content management systems or billing systems or something like that.


But if I were a leader at an organization, I'd do an assessment and determine which one would be best. Because again, all of these hubs inherit similar characteristics, they pay attention to what they're doing, but they all have their differences, and plus you don't want your information to be bifurcated, right? You don't want people getting into a pissing match. Well, this department uses Teams and this department uses Slack and this department uses Citrix or something else. So start off with picking one. 


With regard to the different spokes. I fail to see the logic behind using six different project management applications or two different CRM or ERP systems.


So once you understand that you're going to be selecting a hub and a certain number of spokes, then understand that you'll keep learning. Right? Because without having seen that specific fast company article Mahan, I'll bet you that not all of them apply to every hub or spoke. So you might say, well, that's interesting that Microsoft Teams can do that, but we happen to use Zoom or vice versa. So that will help you figure out how to manage it because I agree it can be overwhelming and when I was writing Slack and zoom for dummies, It was a challenge just paying attention to those products, given how you and I are probably the same age. And it will be, remember when companies used to ship software updates inboxes once a year. Now you can update your software as many times as you want. We've all seen those red badges on our computers and our phones and our tablets. 


So pick a lane and stick with it and always ask yourself, can we do more? But if there isn't a connection between the hub and spoke, well, you can always build one, but most of the time in my experience, there is a native integration or app.


So just as an example with Slack, if I'm using Google docs and I do, because it's an effective way of collaborating with people, not sending email attachments back and forth. And I had joined a new workspace. I will immediately install a couple of apps. One of which is the Google docs app. So I get a notification right in that workspace that Mahan has commented on my file or I'll install the Zoom app because Slack doesn't have the same capability when it comes to video calling. But I could make a zoom call from Slack. 


So one of the other benefits of the model is that you spend less time multitasking and bouncing back and forth and really the hub becomes where you spend a great deal of your time, not all of your time, right? Because you're still going to have to use depending on your role with CRM or ERP or a ticketing system, but that brings everyone together, which I think is going to be really important as we embrace this hybrid future of work.


Mahan Tavakoli:

And actually part of what you say with respect to making a hub work effectively is to do things such as banning emails or at the very least, banning internal reply all emails that we are so addicted to. 


Phil Simon:

Oh, yeah. I've been saying that for years, I wrote a book called Message not received, why business communication is broken and how to fix it and that wasn't that radical of an idea back then. But yes, in the book I write about how Microsoft lets people disable a reply, all which again, to me is incredibly ineffective. Right. Everyone wants to respond just to prove that he or she was there. Remember me, particularly if you're remote. Right. Because one of the challenges of working remote is that no one knows you're there. What better way to remind everyone than hit reply all on email center yet late at night show, it shows that you're working hard. But when a new employee joins the company or someone gets transferred into a role, could you imagine peppering that person with 600 emails?


That's insane. So instead if you're using a hub, invite the person to a particular channel, that person can review all the previous communication, documents, decisions, polls, whatever you're using and get caught up at a reasonable pace. And that person leaves the organization. All that person's communication is still there versus with email, right that person's inbox effectively die. So there are so many benefits to using hubs in general.


I wrote two fairly long books about Slack and Zoom but when you throw that together with the Hub-spoke model of collaboration, It really will be a game-changer and this I would argue, holds true. Even if we all went back to our offices tomorrow.


Mahan Tavakoli:

And that's one of the things that was most impactful for me, Phil, in reading your book, the understanding of picking a lane, picking one of those hubs, and there are lots of spokes that can make the hub more effective and the discipline that it takes organizationally to stick with that hub and make sure that the content and the communication primarily happens through the hub rather than allowing workarounds, which make the hub a lot less effective.


Phil Simon:

Oh, sure. And it is very much a leadership issue. I'm proud of the fact that reimagining collaboration is a holistic book. I'm not saying just deploy Slack or Microsoft teams and everything will be fun. You have to take a look at your culture, your leadership, your business processes, your employee skills. Right?


When I was a college professor for four years and the students would ask me something by email. I respond I had a little shortcut on my computer. A good question asked me in Slack. So it did require the discipline. Now I could do that because I was their professor and they couldn't force me to respond to an email, but that's a lot different in an organization if I'm mid-management right? And someone doesn't want to do that. Well, who the hell is this guy to say, I have to use Slack. 


So yes, I think it is essential for leaders to say we are going to be using Slack or teams or zoom. In fact, there's the example in the book of offer up. The basically the mobile-first craigslist and when I was talking to Natalie and Julio for the book, she mentioned how at first, when they use Slack and offer up, it didn't go so great until the CEO got it and said, okay, everyone from now on internal email is dead.


And from that point on, their use of Slack and just their organization improved dramatically. So, if I've got one piece of advice for leaders, it's, don't poo-poo the importance of these hubs, because when you reply to an email or send an email, you're implicitly telling your colleagues and everyone underneath you in the organization, that this is okay.


And then as I said, your knowledge gets bifurcated. People can't find things in the Hub-spoke model becomes less effective because you've got different people using different tools. Not all text-based communication is the same. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

Like everything else in leadership, Phil, it starts with the leaders doing the right things. And part of the challenge I've seen in some of the organizations that I see is that the leaders partly because of age, partly because they feel they can go around the system, go around it, which takes the effectiveness of the entire hub away from the organization. 


Phil Simon:

Couldn't agree more. It sounds like you buy into the central premise of the book, but,  you know, it is very dangerous to just allow it.


Oh, so-and-so doesn't do Slack or so-and-so would prefer to send an email versus using teams. Well, again, if you make an exception for one word gets out, right? Because that person's going to email someone. Well, how come she doesn't have to use it, but I do that doesn't seem fair. And before, you know, it, the whole thing breaks down.


So yes, you can use the Hub-spoke model or hubs in general in pockets of the organization, but you're going to see a fraction of the benefits than if you used it throughout. And it does start with leadership. It starts with hiring people. In fact, I make this point in the book, you know, if you're hiring someone, set up a guest account, right. Communicate to that potential hire or that applicant right from the beginning. We do things differently here, right? Which in five years, I don't think it will be that different. I think it'll be strange if people use email internally in the future because you know, Slack's got roughly 15 million users, Zoom's over 300, I don't know about Google workspace, but I'm sure it's a big number, 115 million from Microsoft teams.


So this HubSpot model isn't going anywhere and as far as I know, this is the first book to manifest it. So I hope your listeners will check it out because the way I see it, this isn't the future work. This is the present. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

I would highly recommend the book because again, to better understand the hub and spoke system and how to implement it in organization, you give great examples and great questions for people to think through on how to implement it in their organizations.


Now, the couple of other questions as you are in this space with respect to how you have seen collaboration done well with organizations that have a remote workforce where the virtual water coolers or other factors that you find the best in class are using to increase collaboration beyond just the overall framework of the hub and spoke system.


Phil Simon:

So I mentioned before, OfferUp. That's a great example. I mean, it's a tech company and as much as they make an app that people use, so there's technology inherent in that, but it isn't a pure tech company. They're not all coders. They've got marketing folks and sales folks and certainly, with some of my clients, I've helped them adopt the model. Sometimes it's gone well, sometimes not so much primarily because of the people factors, but it's remarkable if you go to plenty of great examples on the Slack blog, several people are typing, I've connected with a bunch of them on LinkedIn, at how these companies have used the existing integrations or they've used the tool like Zapier or IFTTT or Workato to effectively create their own or if it was something particularly technical, then they'd have their developers tap into the application programming interface, the API, or use a webhook, basically ways of connecting things such that they did not have to enter data into multiple systems or they'd get notifications that so-and-so responded to a ticket, right. That wouldn't show up in an inbox with a 150 other messages you've got today. You'd see that specific badge in a Slack channel and you'd know filtering through all that other stuff that I need to deal with a sales inquiry or a tech support issue really before everything else. So there are plenty of examples.


And again, it's not particularly long book. It's actually my shortest book in terms of word count. Although there are a lot of figures, but I suspect that in two to three years- I could revisit this book. Something tells me I'm right. But in fact, I just wrote a blog post about this, this morning on my site, Philsimon.com.


Last April, when I was researching zoom for dummies. Zoom sported 200 third-party apps. So different things you can do with zoom connect, zoom to Slack, connect, zoom to Gmail or calendar, or something like that. Do you know what it is now or less than a year later? a thousand. 5 times as much. Right. And if you might say, well, there can't possibly be a thousand different ways to use video calling in zoom and you're right. That's because contrary to what most people believe zoom is so much more than a video conferencing app. Right? I can set up channels for text-based communication. I can record webinars. I can do voice translation through something like otter.ai. There's a phone system, actual phone, which you might think well, who needs them? Well, if you work in a call center, you probably don't want to give yourself phone number to everyone in the world. 


And then there's the hardware, a zoom room and I've got one in one of my spare bedrooms, basically a dedicated appliance that's always on. It is a computer. But it's really a single-use type thing for either signage or doing whiteboards because if I'm meeting with a group and you can do this virtually as well, you know. You may want a digital whiteboard and it is quite large. I think it's 52 inches or something like that. So when you think about all the different applications of a communications hub, like zoom, a thousand, doesn't seem so crazy after all. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

And what you just mentioned is one of those factors that will play a role in the hybrid future of work. So we'd love to get some of your thoughts about what the future will be.


You also mentioned in your book, making predictions is hard, especially about the future, but you are, you are very much into this space. You have studied it for many years, have written books. So if anyone has a decent understanding of where you are going to be headed, it's you.


Where do you see the future of work and collaboration post the COVID era?


Phil Simon:

Well, we could talk about whether there will be a post COVID era in the sense that kind of like HIV or the flu. People are saying that we're going to have to deal with this for the indefinite future even if everyone got vaccinated, which forget the United States. I think in France, half of the people are against vaccines. It's kind of terrifying when you think about it, but that's a different discussion. So it'll certainly be hybrid.


Salesforce last week announced that in the future, they envisioned three buckets of workers, exclusively remote. Exclusively on-premise or in the office and then hybrid folks who are working two or three days a week in the office. Certainly, the idea of that having a meeting in person always goes away. Now, Certain discussions like a performance review or some sort of collaborative session will be better served I'd argue in person, because even though I'm talking to you over zoom, and I could see that you're nodding your head and you could see my facial expressions as well. Yes, they're going to be times in which we are going to want people together, maybe for our company quarterly meetings. So that means that commercial real estate will change. You might see less of it. People can work from home, but they may want to go into the office again once a month, once a quarter. So maybe the company decides to fly people in once in a while. They can save on labor expenses because you're not competing for the same group of X number of people for engineers. 


In San Francisco, you could hire them in Iowa. In fact, there were already companies that are saying you can work from anywhere, but if you think you're going to live in Iowa and get  San Francisco wages, uh-uh, isn't going to happen.


So in theory, the companies could benefit, I mean, people could spend less time commuting, they can be more flexible, they can pick up their kid from school at three o'clock without having to leave the office. So it's going to be exciting, but I don't think we put the genie back in the bottle. We've been one year now, give or take into the greatest work from home experiment ever. 


And yes, there are still some companies that are struggling and no one's saying that telemedicine can completely replace a doctor meeting with you, but the idea that it's going to go back to normal, I think, um, as I write in the book, that future of work will be more like 2020 than 2002.


Mahan Tavakoli:

It will be and that's why I love your book, Phil, because what it did for me is that rather than getting mired in the minutia of the technology, it brought my thinking up to look at a framework that the organization needs to, and the leaders need to look at with respect to how to use technology effectively and how to set up the systems effectively for greater collaboration. 


Now, how can our audience- in addition to putting links in the show notes, how can our audience find out more about you and your book, Phil?


Phil Simon:

In the books pretty much at every online site. I know it'll be in certain bookstores if they're open, but yes, Philsimon.com, you can find out about all my madness, but I'm really glad Mahan that you reached out to me and that you read and enjoyed the book.


You're right. I did shoot for a model here, a holistic one at that I just written two fairly extensive guides that were very tactical in nature. Here's how you do this in zoom, here's how you do that in Slack. And most of my books however had been more conceptual in nature. And hopefully this is one that people will look back three, five, ten years from now and say, this guy was onto something - Oh yeah that was the old version of this tool and that's been updated so many times that it's basically worthless. So I'm glad that you enjoyed it. And I really appreciate your having me on. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

You are ahead of the curve in this field and it is a book that I'm sharing with all of my clients. Because again, as they have thrown technology at the wall to see what sticks, I think this requires them to take a half a step back and look at effective ways of using technology for collaboration.


So I really appreciate you joining me on this conversation, Phil Simon.


Phil Simon:

Mahan, Thank you. I really enjoyed it.