At every tech or product management talk I go to there is invariably a slide about HiPPOs – standing for the “Highest Paid Person’s Opinions”. It’s a term used to describe a senior member of the organisation who is not attached to the delivery team full time, and who is expressing a perspective that the delivery team feels it has good reason to ignore.
It is usually mentioned in the same breath as the “poop and swoop” — the ability for “management” to drop in and get the team working on a particular feature or aspect of the product which they think is important but the team doesn’t.
Most of the people I’ve seen speak also pitch this as an adversarial relationship that needs to be fought with data and hard facts.
In essence, this approach and both the above phrases look to discount the power which people in these positions hold, so that the team can get on with doing what it believes to be important. Some of these opinions will be valid, some of them will not be. Delivery teams, close to the end user will naturally have deeper insights in some areas than management’s broad but shallow view — but not all of them.
However, for me the phrase HiPPO just serves to further build a barrier between those of us working on projects and the people who pay our wages. Not to mention it’s very rude to compare someone with a giant, faceless, unthinking beast, just because they hold a position we don’t understand.
Brilliant, empathetic, experienced leaders use the expression without a moment’s hesitation. Blinded to the offence that it can cause and, more importantly, blinded to the valid and experienced perspectives that they’re willfully ignoring.
How to Treat HiPPOs as People
As with so much of our profession, the answer comes as not seeing someone as a generic, boxed, unfeeling entity, but treating them like a human being. As product managers or any type of professional, we need to build understanding of their perspectives, empathise with their positions and eventually we can respect their views and even have a trusting relationship. (More about this here — watch out for the Westworld spoilers though.)
The opinions many of these people come up with are based on experience, which we all know can count for a lot. This doesn’t mean that it should be signed off without challenge or investigation, but sometimes the best ideas really are hard to prove with data.
They are also often based on a broader perspective than you might have. A leader will be looking at strategy, operations, people and resources in a way that’s hard to see from anywhere but the top. Again, this doesn’t mean that their opinion is instantly the right answer, but it should be something to consider and explore.
We also know that data can be split, sliced and interpreted a number of different ways. There are very few of us who haven’t used a particular reading of an analysis to support our position, when we know looking at things slightly differently can tell another story (go on, be honest!). Many of us will have been doing so to try and prove a “gut feeling” that we have as to the direction of travel for our product or project. If it’s OK for us to do this, then it’s OK for others…
Experience Counts and you Should use it
These gut feelings can be the essence of a product vision or strategy which are later born out through testing or validation of some kind. They can also be rabbit warrens which will spin time and resources faster than anything else you do. Sometimes it feels it is impossible to tell which is which and guess what is really useful in this situation — experience!
So don’t be afraid to engage with your senior leaders if you’ve got a problem that you don’t know how to solve, are struggling with prioritisation or have a hard choice to make about direction. They will relish the opportunity to engage if you pose the problem in terms that they can understand. This means simplifying it to the basic choice you’re trying to make — without dumbing it down. Explain the technical context, help them understand the user needs involved and go from there.
Pooping and Swooping is the Team Leader’s Fault
If you’ve got a stakeholder who is constantly dropping ideas on the head of your delivery team, then more than likely it’s because they don’t feel they have any other ways to get involved.
They’re aware that this isn’t the best way to do things and probably hate having to act in that way. As such, it’s down to the leader of your team to give them other avenues to engage which make the most of both their perspective and the insights that the team is generating from their work on the ground.
Approaches such as Design Sprints can be fantastic for giving a deep, involved understanding to leaders about the digital process, but they are also a big draw on their time meaning they can often be impractical. Find other ways to engage that fit in with their constraints whether it’s personal demos, one off emails or quick conversations around the office — they’re hard work, but worth their weight in pigeon poop.
Don’t forget, that one day, if you do all this stuff right — you might be the highest-paid person in the room. Just think about how you might want to be treated when that happens.