Curiosity Killed the HIPPO

One of the hardest things for leaders to do as they find success in their careers is knowing when to shut up. The more senior a leader becomes, the more the people in their organisation scrutinise their every word and action. Suggestions become commands that quickly cascade throughout the company. A view stated too early in a conversation will close down any contrary views reducing the quality of decisions and ideas. Well intentioned leaders wanting to add improvements to ideas presented to them can destroy the commitment of the person delivering the idea by appearing to make the suggestion their own.

In their defence leaders are expected, by all around them (including themselves) to be the expert in the room. The Highest Paid Person’s Opinion or HIPPO tends to win the day. In our fast changing, complex world where no one person can be the expert in anything, this is increasingly a problem. Mental models that have served us well are no longer relevant. Leaders need to ensure they take advantage of the collective intelligence in the room and fill missing information with data and experimentation. The first step is to listen to others and seek out data before speaking out.  

In his book Rebel Ideas, Matthew Syed talked about the value of having diverse teams so that more is known about problems before deciding on a course of action. The more diverse the team the more diverse the opinions and thought processes are and the better the decision making.  However to allow this diverse collective intelligence to operate, there needs to be an environment where people feel they can air a contrary view without fear of negative consequence.  It is a leader’s role to create such a climate. For many leaders this does not come naturally. Some I speak to who have, shall we say, an “assertive manner” tell me that people need to “just grow a backbone” or “get thicker skin”. This is obviously an attempt to put the blame for the problem that they have created on others.  Leaders should go into decision making processes with intellectual humility and genuine curiosity. Curiosity is the antidote to fear. As a guide there are 3 steps that leaders should take when embarking on a decision making journey.

  1. Assess the dimensions of the problem. Problems and decisions come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some require urgent action where there is no time for discussion. Some have critical implications where delegation is not appropriate but a  good proportion are suitable for discussion and are an opportunity for everyone to learn.
  2. Ensure the knowledge in the room is aired. All too often a leader (Boss Bob in the picture above) does not extract the collective intelligence in the room. Not only does Bob think that he understands pretty much everything about the issue in hand, he airs his opinion too early closes down others who have have alternate views and suggestions on how to improve the decision. It is often the quietest person in the room (Introverted Irene) who has the most valuable thing to add but is drowned out by the loudest (Loud Larry) who has an inflated view of their expertise. Like all companies, at DBS we had our share of Bobs, Larrys and Irenes. So we introduced a meeting ritual called Wreckoon. Wreckoon was an idea borrowed from the software developers at Netflix. In order to encourage their developers to write stable code, they introduced software into their data centres to deliberately cause problems, for example intentionly shutting down a server. Netflix named this software chaos monkeys and formed a new discipline called chaos engineering. At DBS our developers did something similar in our data centres but named the software Wreckoon. In order to improve our decision making processes, we had the idea of applying chaos engineering to our meetings to ensure we were maximising collective intelligence and encouraging alternate viewpoints that would be the equivalent of shutting down a server. We mandated that in meetings, there needed to be a “Wreckoon” slide inserted at the most critical point in the associated slide deck. This slide apart from having a cartoon image of Wreckoon would ask questions such as: What have we missed?  What is the contrary view?  When the slide was shown, the chair of the meeting encouraged everyone to answer the questions especially those that had not yet spoken. The results were very positive. In my experience, 90% of the time when we used Wreckoon we got valuable information from the group that we would have not otherwise.  More importantly, Wreckoon became part of the vocabulary.  People would say “I am going to be a Wreckoon here”. This was a signal that someone was going to air a contrary view but with the safety of knowing that the behaviour was to be encouraged.  
  3. Extract the knowledge that does not exist in the room. Not everything can be known before a decision is made but there should be explicit consideration for what is not known and whether there is data or experiments that can fill the gap in the timeframe.  The leader’s role is to encourage the team to experiment and analyse any data. The leader needs to ensure that he/she does blindly overrule the data based on their own potentially outdated mental models. This behaviour is the subject of my next post.

“Intellectual Humility” is the second of the 6 habits required to lead transformation.  My last post covered the first – “Insistence on Improvement”.

If you enjoyed this post and have the “genuine curiosity” to read about the next habit, please leave your email here and my next post will appear in your inbox.

9 thoughts on “Curiosity Killed the HIPPO

  1. Yes, fully agree that leaders cannot be an expert in every aspect of a problem or strategy and they have to inspire the collective minds of the team to bring best outcomes.

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  2. Thanks for this! Just recently coming across some, for me, groundbreaking new concepts. Well, they’re actually just great names for things that really strike a chord with me. As in this case, the Wreckoon! I’m just picturing the raccoon wrecking things 😉
    Another good one is “sludge” as a catchall for things that slow us down. Not sure where it’s from (a professor’s new book?)
    Maybe something you could take up briefly after intellectual humility. Would love to see how you handle that!

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  3. Well said!

    In my experience, even with co-ops (the most co-operative type of business you can imagine), this is still a major problem. The good part of being in a co-op, though, is that you can’t just fire someone that you don’t understand.
    So we studied Sociocracy. It’s an organisational theory that aims to create environments where people feel safe and where teams can work productively. It focuses on consent, rather than majority voting, and on collective discussion and decision-making.

    For anyone in positions of power, I’d always recommend reading up on Sociocracy and building a Design Authority around what they’re trying to achieve to get a proof of concept of what collective intelligence can do.

    It’s always two-sided, though. For it to work, people should be brave and ready to stand up for themselves, and the leader should be open to contradictory opinions.

    p.s. Wreckoon sounds like a cryptocurrency

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