How to Handle HiPPOs

hippopotamus-40150_1280Never underestimate a hippopotamus. According to Wikipedia, hippos are the third-largest land mammal and close relatives of whales and porpoises. Adult hippos average 3100 pounds and are capable of running at 19 mph. In short, the hippopotamus “is a highly aggressive and unpredictable animal and is ranked among the most dangerous animals in Africa.”

What about the hippos in your law firm? Are they aggressive, unpredictable and dangerous? Obviously, we’re not concerned that there may be hoofed animals practicing law down the hall from you. We are concerned about the corrosive effect the “highest paid person’s opinion” (HiPPO) can have on your KM project, intranet design, proposal for a new product or service, etc.

What’s so dangerous about the highest paid person?

  • They are senior in rank and often do not have (or will not tolerate) subordinates who question or otherwise push back on them.
  • They are busy and may not have the time to think through all the details before making a decision.
  • They believe that their judgment and seniority equip them to make quick decisions that are sound.
  • They may rely on gut feeling, instinct or personal experience, without checking to see if their experience is the norm or an outlier.

If you find yourself facing HiPPOs in your law firm, here are some strategies that can help you move beyond HiPPOs to better decisions:

  • Data, data, data.  To paraphrase Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, you may be entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts. So if you want to redirect an ill-advised HiPPO, arm yourself with verifiable data. Better yet, use top-notch data visualization to ensure that their Seeing is Understanding.
  • Clients, clients, clients.  When you are facing a HiPPO, do not rely simply on your own opposing opinion — even if it is well-considered.  Buttress it with information direct from your clients.  No matter how fond a HiPPO may be fond of his own opinion, he will have to face reality if his opinion runs counter to that of one or, preferably, more clients.
  • Educate. Keep your HiPPO informed.  When you leave to the last minute your interaction with your HiPPO, you increase the likelihood that your HiPPO will feel compelled to make a quick decision based on incomplete information.  By contrast, when you educate your HiPPO through-out your process, you help your HiPPO reach a better-informed decision.
  • KYH. Just like each law firm implements “know your client” (KYC) procedures, you need to implement procedures to ensure you know your HiPPO (KYH). Learn your HiPPO’s biases and blindspots. Find ways to augment your HiPPOs understanding of the facts and issues.  Develop the ability to steer your HiPPO towards better decisions.  It all starts with knowing your HiPPO.

Now that you know how to handle HiPPOs, here are some final questions to consider. Are you a HiPPO or are you in danger of becoming one? If so, make sure the rest of your team reads this post! 


6 thoughts on “How to Handle HiPPOs

  • July 31, 2015 at 11:47 am

    Right on point Mary. I’m going to make sure my entire team reads your post. It’s all good, common sense though, of course, it’s easier said than done, especially the education piece when you can’t get your HiPPOs attention except when it’s time to complain or push back.

  • July 31, 2015 at 3:23 pm

    Mary, another interesting thing I once heard about hippos: they run very fast, but they have poor vision. No wonder that a group of hippos is called a crash!

  • August 1, 2015 at 12:03 am

    Best strategy of all is to get the hippo on your side. Use the data, the customers views etc, but also see if you can use km to address one of the hippo’s pain points. Ignoring hippos is a mistake, managing them is good, recruiting them is best.

  • August 1, 2015 at 12:52 pm

    You’re right, Dora. It is easier said than done. But the alternative is potentially a bad decision made with incomplete information.

    I wonder, is it worth talking with more senior people in a firm about the true costs of poor HiPPO decisions? Might that make them more willing to set aside the time to stay abreast of your projects?

    If you find a better approach, please do share it here. We all need guidance on this.

    – Mary

  • August 1, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    That’s fantastic, Ryan! I’ll have to add it to my HiPPO file.


  • August 1, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    Nick –

    You’re absolutely right about this. Recruiting HiPPOs is best.

    The frustration for many KMers, however, is that in the process of recruiting they still find HiPPOs who are unwilling to commit the time necessary to make better decisions — even though the subject at hand is that HiPPO’s own pain point. As a result, the KMers are not always able to close the deal on recruitment.

    This may be challenge that is particular to the legal industry where lawyers are bound by the clock and are unwilling to set aside much time (if any) that is not spent in direct service to clients. Is it different in other industries?

    – Mary

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