Threats to Your Project, Part 1: Surviving the HiPPO Attack

A man presenting a graph to a hippo wearing a suit jacket.

This is the first post in a 3-part series on threats to your project.

In early February, Uber decided to launch a redesign of their brand. Much to their dismay, it was received with an outcry. People were surprised by the redesign and rejected the new design. Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick explained the reasoning behind the rebrand by asking, "Have you ever looked at someone’s hairstyle and thought 'oh my, you peaked in the 1990s?' Well that’s a bit how I feel about Uber’s look today."

Let’s be honest, this is not the first time we have heard someone say that their brand feels outdated. This was not the reason for the outcry but the fact that the new design was very poorly received. It's not that Uber did not invest in the right talent to rebrand. They hired a designer from Google who came up with more than 200 logo variations. They even had the luxury of time; they claimed to have worked for under two years on the redesign. What was the problem then? The design review wrapped up in 10 minutes with Kalanick deciding on a solution.

I have no reason to ding Travis Kalanick. Kalanick is a genius engineer and entrepreneur. But he is not a professional designer and apparently was not part of the design process to validate his making such a quick decision. This scenario is not unique to Uber. This happens in most organizations. It’s just that, unlike Uber, most of them have little to no public visibility, so their process goes undocumented. This is not the first time a rebranding effort has come under public criticism … it’s just the most recent. (If your curiosity has peaked about Uber’s redesign controversy, you can read Uber’s Atomic Meltdown by Eli Schiff.)

Now, what does this have to do with a hippo? Glad you asked.

The HiPPO, or highest paid person’s opinion, is a commonplace scenario when a senior manager or an executive weighs in on decisions without being part of the process. They voice their opinion or make a decision based on intuition or gut. Due to their position within the organization, no one can argue with the decision, and the weeks and months you have spent carefully working on a solution are wasted. I see this scenario in many organizations. Words like “That yellow reminds me of the days when I was a poor student and I had a sweatshirt that color” are shared in meetings. While these HiPPOs, like the real hippos in the wild, are not a threat to your life, they can squeeze the life out of your project.

The next time you are responsible for leading a project and you find yourself in a similar situation, you will need to address your HiPPO head on. We know how unnerving it can be to butt heads with your CEO or Commissioner. If not handled with care, it can sometimes be career ending. So I’ve put together a few tips for how you can prevent a HiPPO attack.

Know Thy HiPPO

Survey the pond and spot your HiPPO. The executive who might derail your project cannot appear in your meeting without an invite or early signs of attendance. There is a good chance you will know the executive who might attend your meeting at some point. They might have signed your statement of work as the executive sponsor for your project. Once you know who they are, you can find out more about their style of working. They are not looking to derail your project, they just want to help. Be watchful and spot your HiPPO early on and plan accordingly. Just assume they are going to show up for every meeting and be prepared to face them.

Understand Thy HiPPO

HiPPOs are where they are because they have been successful. They have experience and judgment to prove their mettle. Find out what makes them tick. In most cases, they are reasonable and supportive. But in some cases they can be rash and known for making decisions based on their gut. After all, executives are required to make decisions right? In such cases, keep facts handy.

If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.
— Dan Barksdale, Netscape.

Counter instincts with data. It is hard to ignore numbers and still convince people their gut feeling trumps data. Find out if visuals or narratives make them tick and have all the needed data and material ready. Even good design work, though it may seem subjective to someone who isn’t a trained designer, should be based on research and numbers rather than one individual’s feeling about the color yellow.

Educate Thy HiPPO

Keep your HiPPO in the loop from early on. The more they are included in the early stages of the project and the process, the less likely they are to make decisions that change the course of the project mid-stream.

Recently, we worked on a design project where we found out that the client team working with us was planning on presenting our final design to the head of the organization for approval. The head hadn’t been at the earlier meetings, and the team who worked on the design wouldn’t be presenting the work. This is a tricky situation for everyone. The HiPPO has no idea of the process and the data that led to the design decisions, but now is on the spot to approve it as is. If they don't suggest a few changes, will they still pull their weight as a HiPPO? Sometimes executives are too busy to be included in all the mid-stream processes and approvals. In this case, put together a journey map explaining how the solution was approached so your HiPPO can make a better informed decision.

Keep thy HiPPO engaged

The swamp hippos can get aggressive and dangerous if they think they or their calves are under attack. Similarly, conference room HiPPOs might get defensive or dangerous if they think you are doubting their position by attacking their suggestions or ideas. Make sure you hear them out and document everything they suggest. You don't have to agree to implement their ideas right away. You can, however, agree to user test that suggestion or have an analyst check supporting data. Delta Airways found out that changing the color of their ‘Book your ticket’ button from red to blue increased their conversion rates by 15%. But before they implemented this change, they went through a rigorous A/B testing effort to confirm their gut instinct.

By taking time to do the research, you also benefit from revisiting the suggested change a week later with your HiPPO. The change might not be as high on their priority list next week compared to the moment they suggested it.

HiPPOs are not evil, but you should never underestimate one. Just like the hippos in the wild, they may seem too huge to move quickly, but they can still outrun you. Instead, learn from them. They truly have visibility into the issues from a different perspective. At times we get occupied in the trenches and having a HiPPO’s insight on the project can be helpful. As long as they are contributing towards the success of your project, HiPPOs can be an asset to your project. If you are a HiPPO, the next time you attend a meeting mid-stream and are tempted to make a gut call, remember the days when you sweated a HiPPO attack. If you are not a HiPPO, remember this post when you become one.

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