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In this weeks edition of #TopTipsTuesday - How to handle HIPPOS

Very topical given my recent sharing of the dangerous animals of product management. This episode focuses on the most well known of the animals - The HIPPO. The Highest Paid Persons Opinion. An important caveat or two before we begin. I do not sanction any demeaning use of language, segregation, disinclusion or otherwise through talking about someone as a HIPPO. This is purely about acknowledging how the presence of a HIPPO can be counter productive to psychological safety and achieving successful outcomes. This is not a one size fits all solution. Consider your situation at hand and whether these options are suitable. There may be factors cultural, political or otherwise which may influence a different approach here. Firstly, what is a HIPPO?

  • A HIPPO is an acronym for the 'Highest Paid Persons Opinion'.

  • Humans have a tendency towards authority bias. In the absence of clear data to aid decision making, we will often defer to the most experienced person and in many cases, this can be a HIPPO. This is deeply entrenched evolutionary behaviour and stems back to when we as tribes would seek advice from elders who have lived and experienced the challenges we face. For further evidence on the research behind authority bias, consider the Milgram scientific experiments from 1963.

  • Often in meetings, HIPPO's speak first. This can be dangerous in that it can shape the direction of the entire meeting, particularly of the HIPPO speaks of solutions, rather than outcomes sought or problems to be solved.

  • In many cases, taking the view of someone more experienced can serve us well, however, in today's VUCA world, it can result in many valuable ideas, or opinions being drowned out, particularly from those less extroverted or psychologically unsafe team members.

  • Another challenge with HIPPO's is that by virtue of their seniority, they are often furthest removed from the GEMBA - Where the value happens. They may be less exposed to the customers actual needs, their employees ways of working and as such, may not best serve or provide the right solution.

How to tame your HIPPO

  • Listen first - Speak with your teams and seek to understand if they feel psychologically safe to share their thoughts without judgement. If they don't have concerns, there is no need to handle your HIPPO's any differently.

  • If they do have concerns, ask them what experiments they could try that would enable them to feel safer / more willing to contribute their ideas. Pick these actions up on your next iteration and reflect on them in the next retrospective

  • Privately speak with HIPPO's and help them understand how their presence can be counter-productive. Ensure that their opinions and views are heard and feature in decision making. Don't forget to be inclusive. Seek to understand their needs, not just the teams.

  • Seek data to de-personalise decision making - Encourage a process of hypothesis, experimentation and analysing data to form decisions. Be objective rather than subjective. Data and facts don't have emotions.

  • Play devils advocate - Challenge HIPPO's constructively to consider alternatives by playing devils advocate, you may unlock something they hadn't considered

  • Encourage healthy conflict - Create and continually reinforce a culture where people are able to challenge where they disagree without fear of judgement or negativity. Lead by example here and actively ask people to challenge your thoughts and opinions.

Video available on YouTube below;

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