The HiPPO: A Project Nightmare

This post originally appeared March 3, 2011 on

Hippo in Ngorongoro Craterphoto © 2006 Geof Wilson | more info (via: Wylio)Frankly, Hippos are really very aggressive animals. They’ve got massive jaw pressure, large fang-like teeth and because they are extremely territorial, will attack any human that gets even close to them. In short, they are not likely to end up on the list as a replacement for dogs as man’s best friend.

But I’m not really taking about the Hippos you find in Africa, I’m talking about HiPPOs. While they can share some of the same traits, especially when it comes to territorial protection, Hippos and HiPPOs really are different things.

Hopefully by this point I’ve peaked your interest just enough to make you wonder what in the world I’m talking about. A HiPPO is the ‘Highest Paid Person’s Opinion.’

You’ve all seen it before… you’re in a meeting, trying to figure out the solution to a really tough problem. For the last hour, everyone has been tossing out ideas, shooting holes in the ideas of others and generally building to a consensus as to what should be done. The group finally comes to a final decision, only to recognize that there is a shadow hanging over the room, namely that 'Bob’ hasn’t been involved.

Bob doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the solution. He’s a VP and the entire room has been discussing implementation details of a project that has a smaller budget than what Bob makes in a month. Yet, no one wants to make the decision without Bob’s input. The meeting ends with one of Bob’s direct reports (or worse yet, someone who reports to one of Bob’s direct reports) being assigned to go find out what Bob wants to do as his opinion is really the only one that counts, despite him not having the expertise or situational knowledge to make an informed decision.

I’m not a person who thinks that keeping a Bob in the dark is a good idea, but I’m also not one who advocates taking every decision to Bob, either. Taking every decision to Bob leads to decision paralysis and then project paralysis. If no one but Bob can make the decision and Bob is unavailable, work grinds to a halt. So when should a decision go to Bob?

When I’m deciding if something needs to go to Bob, I ask the following questions:

First, what is the impact? Is it big or small? How many people does it impact? Will it have a negative impact on another team, department or division within the organization? If the impact is small, both in people and reach, the decision doesn’t really need to go to Bob.

Second, what does it cost? This one is a bit trickier because costs can be difficult to quantify. Is the cost a direct cash outlay? Is it for a deferrable purchase? What are the spending limits imposed by company policy? What are the savings? What department is paying for it? If the purchase fits within the guidelines of the people assembled to make the decision and Bob has previously authorized similar purchases, then its probably safe to say that it doesn’t need to go to Bob.

Third, what about timing? Its rare when a decision must be made right now, but they do come up. If Bob isn’t available and the decision must be made now, who makes it? Bob’s boss? Bob’s boss’ boss?

Last, what is Bob’s personality? Is he a person that expects every decision to go to him? Is there a way to help Bob understand that certain decisions really don’t need his input? Is it worth sitting down with Bob to outline exactly what should be brought to him and what shouldn’t?

These questions really are not easy to answer, despite them having seemingly easy answers. The same question, asked in the context of a small upgrade project versus a company strategic project may change if Bob should be included in the decision making process.

What questions would you ask before going to 'Bob’ for an answer?