Hippos Need a Devil’s Advocate

Hippo II, by Andrew Moore
Hippo II.  Photo courtesy of Andrew Moore.
Hierarchy is the enemy of information-sharing.

In this Linkedin article by Benard Marr the author identifies that people are extremely reluctant to express views contrary to Highest-Paid Person’s Opinion, or HiPPO for short.  Marr cites the book Web Analytics: An Hour a Day, by Avinash Kaushik, in which that author describes the dynamic;

“HiPPOs usually have the most experience and power in the room.  Once their opinion is out, voices of dissent are usually shut out and in some cases, based on the culture, others fear speaking out against the HiPPO’s direction even if they disagree with it.”

Marr references the Milgram experiment in 1963 in which obedience to an authority figure overpowered peoples’ personal conscience.  There is an additional study that finds that projects led by senior leaders fail more often, because employees “…didn’t feel as able to give critical feedback to high-status leaders.”

What is the solution?  Marr asserts that relying on data is critical; we must line up the data to inform a decision prior to gut decisions being expressed by high-ranking people.  There is also an example of Alfred Sloan of General Motors who insisted that a decision should not be made until people have considered that the decision might not be the right one.  Sloan fosters the devil’s advocate in the process of decision-making.

I think this critique and the related research implies that modesty is mission-critical.  It’s an important contrary idea because it implies that confidence might not be a leading indicator of effectiveness.  We wish our leaders were strong and brave and looked the part, but it’s far better when our leaders are right… because they thought twice, and waited for new information, and new opinions, from people with less status.

I also think that a properly organized social network of knowledge is usually superior to the thoughts of any one individual.  With education and access to information, it should become evident that you barely know one percent of what could be known.  However, if you aspire to having a diverse network of people with different backgrounds, contexts, professions, and knowledge, you can bundle together better insights from those who each know a different one percent.

Finally, a pro-social spirit of dissent is key to getting the information moving.  When information goes up the hierarchy there are problems of posture, reprisals, hubris, and corrosive office politics.  If you love knowledge, you should develop a sense that all those things are silly little power games that have nothing to do with wisdom or effectiveness.  To be good at your job, is to regard your superiors as capable agents of decision-making who are morally your equal.  And it’s your job to make them stronger, whether they like it or not.

It’s a troublesome attitude, but that’s part-and-parcel of disrupting decision-making with new and relevant information.

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