Robey’s Blog: The Hippo in the Room

So, new research has revealed that businesses – and SMEs in particular – are labouring under the burden of a significant risk factor that has, until now, been hiding in plain sight: hippos.

And whilst this may or may not be connected to my dream last night that we had acquired an office pig as a security measure, I don’t, of course, mean that there are 3-tonne semi-aquatic mammals hiding in the breakroom and stealing all the doughnuts.  Because “hippo” is, inevitably, an acronym and although you know how I feel about the steamroller of management jargon, this one is probably worth paying attention to – especially if you’re in an SME, because that’s where the real weight of a hippo is felt most keenly.

A hippo is the HIghest-Paid Person’s Opinion.  And instantly, I suspect, you know what the problem is.  Still, for those of you who are still catching up, I’ll spell it out.  When ideas are being discussed, there is a tendency for the word of the most senior (i.e. highest paid) person in the room to be given more weight than anyone else’s.  This shouldn’t be surprising: partly, because the hippo is paid to be good at what they do, so it’s reasonable to think that they might have good ideas; but also because people’s job security tends to be at risk if the hippo is against them.  However, the research suggests that the problem is more serious than just that.

By the way, for the rest of this article, I’m going to ignore the fact that the O stands for “opinion”.  It’s not the opinion that’s the problem, it’s the person.  Plus, it’s a lot more fun to refer to people as “hippos” than it is to refer to the opinions.

The study was based around software companies: that is, companies that rely upon creativity and innovation to thrive.  But the ideas of hippos were (1) far more likely to be pursued and (2) far more likely to fail.  Whilst we may not necessarily be operating in the highly competitive and cut-throat industry of software development, I think all SMEs have a strong reliance upon creativity and innovation but our hippos, for all their many strengths, are often the figures least well connected to the well-springs of novelty.  Simply put, if we want more successful ideas, we have to diminish the hippos, and there are two directions of attack that we can take to do this.


If you are the hippo

The hippos are, themselves, the ones best-placed to affect this of course.  It’s not hard to know if you’re a hippo.  Unlike many situations of bad management practice, this one has a clear and objective measure: if you’re the highest-paid person in the room, you’re the hippo.  It doesn’t matter if you think you’re a great ideas manager already: you’re still the hippo.  But there are clear ways to help manage your negative effect on any given discussion.

First, you can simply remove yourself from the discussion.  Step out for coffee.  Go and get the beers in.  Pop across the road for bagels.  Whatever you choose to do, remove yourself from the discussion and find out what they came up with in your absence.  There is a slight problem in this approach in that, when the hippo goes, there’s still a hippo – just a smaller hippo than before.  But a smaller hippo is better than a bigger hippo.  And you can somewhat ameliorate this by picking a non-hippo to report back to you on the discussion later.

Alternatively, if you want or need to stay in the room, you can elect to use your hippo-power for good.  With great power comes great responsibility.  And your responsibility is to shut up and let other people talk.  You may have ideas that you think are great ideas, but the statistics suggest that you’re wrong, so be quiet.  But you can still use your hippo-power for good, by expressing the opinion that everyone should express their opinion – and by then not expressing any more opinions!  You are the exception to the rule.

If you’re not a hippo yourself – or if you’re an unusually self-aware hippo – you may have noticed that hippos will most likely try to follow the second option and then fail.  And that’s why the first option is invariably better than the second.

The good news is that if the hippo can get into the habit of simply not participating in the discussions until the ideas have already been generated, you can foster a culture in which the hippo’s weight naturally reduces itself to something more manageable.

Either way


If you aren’t the hippo

A safety warning: openly expressing opinions that run against the hippo can be bad for your career.  It shouldn’t be, but facts are facts.  But there are ways to get past the hippo problem.

  1. Set a hippo to catch a hippo. If you can sell your idea to another senior heavyweight, then you might win it some air time without risking your career.  The down side is you might also lose the credit for the idea.  Even if your friendly hippo does the right thing and gives credit where it’s due, most of the glory will likely go to your ally.


  1. Divine inspiration. Your idea will be more palatable to a hippo if the hippo believes the idea started with them, so look for ways in which a hippo’s ideas can be the inspiration or starting point for your own.  Hippos are more willing to put their own ideas aside if they think the alternative is a logical progression or consequence of their own blue-sky thinking.


  1. Get your retaliation in first. We are good at remembering the first thing on a list because it gets repeated most often.  The first idea in any group exercise is often the one that gets adopted, especially if others have no ideas: it’s easier to agree with a proposal than to oppose it.  So as soon as the invitation to start sharing is thrown out, be the first in the ring.

It’s worth emphasizing that these are strategies for diminishing the influence of the hippo, not for getting your own way.  So be alert to signs that the hippo is using these approaches already.  If so, your alarm bells should ring.

Beware the hippo!

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