The HiPPO Effect on Customers and Product Teams

I follow all sorts of writers and speakers considered thought leaders in product thinking and practice. How companies have transformed into ideal product companies is usually inspirational reading for me. Honestly, though, I felt somewhat deflated scanning recent headlines. The reality is that most of us in product roles work for clients or teams or organizations that are not really part of the “strong product company elite.” So, today, let’s talk about the effects of top-down decision-making on product team members and customers. I want to make product decision-makers aware of how the highest-paid person’s opinion (HiPPO) can negatively affect both the customer and the product team.

HiPPO Facts

I first came across the term “HiPPO” at an analytics conference earlier in my career. The term originated with Avinash Kaushik, who authored Web Analytics: An Hour a Day. The expression describes an authority figure who often dominates decision-making by casting their opinions. This authority figure usually has the most experience and power in the room.

The danger a HiPPO presents is that they impose their opinions over teams and customers. Their decision-making is not informed by results from testing assumptions. They are not focused on the company’s customers.

HiPPOs don’t necessarily come with ill intent. HiPPOs often think they are demonstrating leadership when it is lacking on teams. For instance, they might view it as leadership when they end a debate that impedes progress or controls costs associated with testing. 

Manifestations of Having a HiPPO on Your Product Team

The most obvious sign of a HiPPO problem is that opinion rather than data is driving important decisions. Some or all of the following are true:

  • User data is hardly discussed rather than focusing on results from experimentation, survey questions, testing, and market research.
  • A feature roadmap exists, and it’s nearly impossible to change it.
  • The product team defers to the HiPPO in meetings.
  • Leadership cites the HiPPO’s opinions and direction as justification for important decisions.
  • The HiPPO presents their opinions as fact.

Impact on Customers

  1. The team overlooks the actual problems of real customers.
  2. HiPPOs create a perception that the business is not listening to or not in touch with what they want.
  3. There is little or no value delivered. This is due to product teams’ focus on satisfying the HiPPO’s requirements rather than first delivering value to customers.

Impact on Product Teams

  • A HiPPO can curtail valuable and dissenting opinions. The HiPPO’s authority in the company can become confused with perceived expertise. Rather than basing decisions on fact, teams will often follow the HiPPO’s lead rather than disagree.
  • Giving in to a HiPPO compresses space for “making plans to learn.” This is a concept agility expert and author Jeff Gothelf writes about. Basically, it’s the idea that feedback should drive temporary changes that help product teams learn through testing assumptions.
  • This can lead to turnover. When a team feels a lack of trust and empowerment, it can cause members to search out other opportunities.

HiPPOs in Short

  • HiPPOs can come with good intent.
  • If there’s no data, then it is difficult to refute or rebut the HiPPO’s direction.
  • When system analytics aren’t in place yet, talk to customers.
  • With a HiPPO, the measure of progress is how satisfied that person is and not the customer behavior as a measure of value.

Dealing with a HiPPO:

  • Whenever possible, bring customer data into discussions to validate, confirm, or challenge ideas.
  • Ask the HiPPO to hold their comments until the end of the discussion. Presumably, they will be more informed by first hearing the discussion before offering an opinino.
  • Have multiple engagement activities at various levels. You can even create anew structure for the HiPPO to engage in the project.
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