Sasha D'Arcy18 July 2022

How the HIPPO effect is killing Innovation

Ever heard of a HIPPO? Not the kind from the African savanna – I’m talking about business HIPPO’s. Specifically the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion and the unruly influence it has on our decisions and ability to debate.

We’ve all been there before: we’re sitting in a meeting and need to make a decision. Ideas have been floated and there’s no consensus on which is the best one to progress. The HIPPO makes a suggestion as to which they think is the best option, and the majority of the room quickly follows suit. That’s the HIPPO effect. It results in the same sorts of ideas coming through time and time again – the opposite of what we want when it comes to innovation.

Research shows that one of the top five drivers of a rich innovation culture is intellectual stimulation, which in non-academic speak translates to people believing that debate and discussion of ideas (not people) are encouraged at work. So how can you encourage more debate and diversity of ideas if you’re the HIPPO in the room (or coming up against one)?

Nominate a countervailing force

Andreessen Horowitz, one of the most successful Venture Capital firms in Silicon Valley (invested in the likes of Facebook, Skype, Twitter, Airbnb), uses a countervailing force to encourage opposing points of view. For example, Horowitz might come in with a potential new deal, and Andreesson will rip it to shreds. He might think it is the best idea he’s ever heard but he’ll still “trash the crap out of it” (their words, not mine) to deliberately provoke debate.

Designate your own countervailing force in meetings or team discussions to deliberately argue against the majority. Explain that it’s this person’s role to argue against the group and by doing so, people will feel much more forthcoming and confident to speak up.

Play paper, scissors, rock

What if you want to get a quick read of the room but don’t have time for debate and discussion? Atlassian uses a tool from our childhood to help us gain quick insights (that can’t be influenced by HIPPO’s): Paper. Scissors. Rock – but with a slight tweak. When you want to read the room quickly, ask everyone to get their thumbs at the ready and “pappperrr, scissorrrs, rockkk” reveal a thumbs up (I’m on board) a thumbs down (I’m not in favour) or a thumb sticking out to the side (I’m unsure).

The great part about this tool is it happens live and instantaneously, with no time to change results once the HIPPO has voted. You can then call on people with thumbs at the middle or pointing downwards to share their insights.

Give them a seat at the table

A final example comes from Infosys, an Indian information technology company. Their average employee age is 26, yet senior executives were finding it difficult to garner any feedback or new ideas from these recruits. In response, top management created a program called Voice of Youth, which gathers together a group of top-performing twentysomethings and gives them a seat on the company’s management council. There’s no holding back at that point: Members of all ages are expected to “debate, discuss, and critique” any and all aspects of the business. The purpose of these discussions is to identify and capture young ideas and to foster and develop them into innovations in products, services or processes.

How can you give junior recruits a seat at the table to hear their unique perspectives? Could you have a rotating spot for someone new that attends board meetings and weighs in on strategic decisions?

Have a go at improving your opportunities for debate and discussion.