Taming the HiPPO

06 Nov 2018 by Steven Giannoulis


OK, so I’ve put on a bit of weight lately but I still took exception to the recent description of me as a Hippo. Turns out they were right – I have been throwing a bit too much weight around when it comes to generating ideas. So I’ve put myself on a tight leash and I’m learning to tame my natural instincts.

Let’s be honest, the best ideas aren’t always the ones that get chosen. How many times during my career have I been in this scenario: a roomful of managers listen to a strong pitch from the most senior person in the room. After the spiel, one or two people agree. The rest say nothing, reluctant to disagree or suggest better ideas. It’s the idea we end up going with even though, more often than not, it’s not even the best idea we’ve got.

And that’s the downside of involving HiPPOs (highest-paid-person's opinion) in the early stages of idea generation. 

We HiPPOs aren’t all bad

Don’t get me wrong, we HiPPOs aren’t all bad. Teams often need us to lead the charge and to keep them focused on the goal. And not all our ideas are bad ideas. But HiPPOs can stifle the creative process. The challenge is to not let them dominate creativity and innovative thinking. If you do, you may end up with very narrow ideas, based on one or two people's experiences and gut feel. Worse still, you end up going with bad ideas that everyone’s afraid to challenge. In other words, how do you tame the HiPPO in the ideation process?

I’m the HiPPO in most brainstorms at work. I often feel that everyone is waiting for me to come up with the ideas or when ideas are presented, everyone looks to me to decide whether they are good or not. For ages this has frustrated me, but thinking about it now it says more about me, and the culture I’ve created, than it does about the team. And that’s why I’ve been trying some new things to self-silence my inner HiPPO and to help us generate better ideas. Some approaches worked better than others and I definitely found some easier to do.

Silencing the inner HiPPO

  • Co-creation – incorporating clients and wider groups into the brainstorming process. This introduces more people interested in the best outcomes rather than the politics of seniority. Of course, the client becomes the most important person in the room. 
  • Silent brainstorming – using sticky notes and getting everyone to put all their ideas down first before coming up to present them one by one. Every sticky note has equal value. This stops the first and loudest dominating the brainstorming. I’ve found this approach to be successful.
  • Using a voting system – where everyone gets to vote on ideas. Every vote is equal and we focus on only the ideas with the most votes, regardless of whose they are. In these scenarios, I try and vote last to stop influencing what others may think.
  • Holding back - I’ve tried in a couple of brainstorms to actively stop myself from contributing ideas. I found this hard and wasn’t as successful at it as I needed to be! This puts the emphasis on others to generate the first ideas. In both cases there was awkward silence at the start but once they got into it, the team came up with some great ideas. 
  • Building on other’s ideas only – In another session, I set myself a goal to not generate any new ideas but to only build on other people's ideas. I enjoyed this and there were some good collective outcomes.
  • Playing a different role – rather than contributing ideas, I sometimes look to play a facilitator role, asking questions or offering insights that allow others to generate ideas. This approach lets me influence the direction without dominating the ideas.
  • Agreeing an ‘objective’ criteria – establishing the criteria for assessing ideas upfront allows all ideas to be considered on the same basis regardless of who came up with them. It also gives others a legitimate basis to challenge the HiPPO’s ideas. 

For most of my career I haven’t been the most senior person in the room, so I know what it feels like to not have your good ideas heard. It therefore horrifies me that I might be the one holding us back when it comes to the new ideas and approaches. So if, like me, you’re the HiPPO in the room, fight your natural instincts and actively seek ways to help the team come up with the best ideas collectively. After all you, that’s how you got to be the HiPPO in the first place.

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