The Undervalued HiPPOs

HiPPOs are berated, more than they should be.

The following is a scene that has played out so many times, that I feel like am sitting through some cheap remakes of a movie, based on a premise, abused over the years:

Senior counterparts aka self proclaimed product gurus, claim a feature request to be of the top priority for their customers(potential and hypothetical). The limited competitive and market data that you have, as a product manager, support both the claims. The usage data from your enterprise product is inconclusive. And you, despite all the claims of what you have been told, cannot be the decision maker, neither does your development team have the bandwidth to do both. Raw Ending much?

In comes the HiPPO(Highest Paid Person’s Opinion for the uninitiated), a few minutes and you walk away knowing what has to be done, though the question might still be there - is this really the right decision? But it would rarely matter: the way forward may not even be one of the options from above, but a completely different one, but at least, on the surface, everybody looks to be onboard with the plan. And you have a license to make it happen.

Sounds like an antithesis of the data driven world everybody raves about, where data rules and group think trumps individual fallacies. Case in Point: Forbes’ take on JC Penny being burnt by Ron Johnson or BBC’s take on why one should question the HiPPOs aroundThis beautiful summary on HiPPOs pretty much sums up everything that is wrong with a HiPPO driven strategy. I, for one, would stick out my neck and say, HiPPOs are undervalued. They are essential and makes the clock tick around in so many organisations, that we should give them more respect than what the articles and popular belief tells today.

Culture is another undervalued aspect in organisations, often relegated to the annals of the HR cubicles for a talk, often to be given to those outside the org. But, culture does impact how organisations take up initiates and drive them. In organisations steeped with a particular style of working, any change, is seldom bottom up and most essentially, is seldom successful without a key driver, whose life( and earning $$$) depend on it. Since times immemorial, irrespective of how many folks talk about "influence", the parameter that drives action is related to power - which is a reflection of authority and one's salary. Before you jump up and leave, please do note, am not talking of an Amazon or Google which have become the epitome of what decentralised decision making and self sufficient, empowered teams can achieve. I am talking of the normal majority - the group that employs you and I and the million others. 

A HiPPO, driving an initiative, is guaranteed to get results - because the person is mostly dependant on the success of it, through measurable KPIs to earn their high numbers. On the other hand, when a group is entrusted to drive initiatives, the KPIs are often intangibles - less about the revenues and measurables and more about getting people together, creating a common framework and everything else you can think of being done, by those junior folks and interns, as endless decks and pages of content that makes for a great Sharepoint folder, but are seldom read except for that Table of Contents(which can be a short story in itself). Let me give a simple example: These KPIs mentioned here are a good read, but as outlined in the very article, have very little bearing on the KPIs that matters: Revenue & Profits.

Disparate teams driving forward an agenda have their own share of pros and cons. So does Data. But new initiatives and time bound ones, need a driver to guide the team through all the painful baggage an organisation has, to reach a goal. So does a startup - a matured one uses data to evolve, but to reach that state of maturity, where the positioning is determined, and iterative improvements are good enough, the initiative is to be led by the founders. An example - Flipkart’s experiments like going app only or the in-app social chat were all initiatives driven by HiPPOs - especially when data and user behaviour looked to be non-stable indicators of what users wanted. As you look at the initiatives today from India’s leading e-commerce portal, you will see the change - not much is led without data or by a HiPPO, showing a maturity and organisational culture that has come to realise the balance required to drive ahead results, without needing an individual to do it, and using the data as a key navigator. This transition is best achieved through experience and the right pains of growth - and till that happens, blaming and removing HiPPOs from the scheme of things, are surely counter-productive.

So borrowing the popular adage, “The HiPPO is dead. Long live the HiPPO”.

So what do you think? Are you an HiPPO or work with one? Or you think the age of HiPPOs are over and they should be relegated to the same bunch as a Blackberry or the once quintessential Skype?