In defense of HIPPOs

The term HiPPO (Highest Paid Person's Opinion) is getting quite popular in project management world (& IT in particular) recently. What's the fuss about? When there's a decision to be taken & various options are discussed, people tend to lean towards the opinion stated by the Highest Paid Person present. Why? Because ...

  • ... this is usually their superior or at least someone higher in org chart - so they do not want to mess with him/her (quite the contrary ...)
  • ... they are afraid of making fools of themselves, if it turns out that they've overlooked something

As expected, there's a lot of criticism of HiPPOs - widely recognized authorities find them one of the reason of low engagement, missing empowerment, low creativity & limited productivity of teams. I've read / heard plenty of opinions & I tend to agree with a lot of them, BUT ...

Opinions VS Facts

People notoriously confuse facts with opinions. I've read somewhere (unfortunately, I can't find the bookmark, so I don't know which book was that ...), that there was an old-fashioned CEO who had a nice saying he was using during the debates when someone had opposed his opinion:

If what you're saying is a FACT, bring up the proof / source.
If you're coming with an OPINION, let's keep mine.

The last part may seem a bit assholish, but ... dude has got a point. Why?

Fighting HiPPOs shouldn't be about downcasting authorities & introducing direct democracy (all decisions based on votes where everyone regardless of rank & experience gets equal vote)).

The true game should be about:

  1. facts that should always win with opinions, regardless of who formed the opinion
  2. (in case of opinion VS opinion clash) focusing on identifying / discovering any data that could be an objective basis for options' evaluation

If the latter fails for some reason, HiPPO isn't that ridiculous option, as long as:

  • person that states the HiPPO remains ACCOUNTABLE for it (incl. responsibility for the consequences of the decision)
  • person that states the HiPPO doesn't try to micromanage stuff that's out of his/her responsibility / detail level / area of expertise

Why?

Care for your HiPPO

To explain what you could be losing by discarding HiPPO, I'll give you two important (IMHO) remarks:

+ 100 XP

The highest paid person is usually paid highest for some reason - (s)he's not guaranteed to be right, be (s)he's usually supposed to have a lot of experience / knowledge / skills / wits in some particular area. Playing down its value just to please some undervalued individuals is a typical play for cheap publicity ("power to the people!").

Synergy of the team is not about downsizing everyone to the same level and killing people uniqueness, but about full utilization of team's combined potential, with individual cogs playing different roles they are best suited for (keeping in mind both team's good & their good).

Visions ... or delusions?

Self-governing, self-organizing team is a great principle. But it doesn't really work like some people think: there still ARE leaders (because there's a big need for them). Leaders on various levels, but in such teams they usually emerge in a natural way - their position (doesn't have to be formal) & reputation is earned by field merit, instead of coming from a grant.

It's leaders who are supposed to:

  • bring & 'sell' internally some kind of VISION
  • make sure people remain ALIGNED
  • Remind & clarify shared, common GOALS

Of course leaders do not have to be leaders in general, leading may be limited to particular field the individual is good in. But anyway ... Good leaders grow (as a side effect). They (their activities) are visible & so they are more likely to get promoted / get a raise / increase their status within organization. Sometimes they are the creators & founders, who laid the foundations for this team / unit / organization. That's why they may end up as the Highest Paid People.

Take Jobs, Musk, Bezos - they all have something in common:

  1. they stand behind extremely successful businesses and ...
  2. ... these businesses are (were - in case of Jobs) subjugated unconditionally to their VISIONS (which are/were, let's face it, far closer to opinions that facts)

Is it that bad? Would Apple / Amazon / Tesla / Facebook be in the place it is now, if they've followed fully democratic rules?