Agile: Beware the HiPPO in the room

A few months ago, I was reading the always excellent blog from Black Swan Farming. An article that interested me spoke of the HiPPO effect. The following post is based on this article and my own thoughts on the highly collaborative ways of working required for Agile development practices.

The Highest Paid Persons Opinion (HiPPO) can lead to unhelpful group thinking and set boundary conditions or expectations that don’t really exist.

Most of you reading this will be able to recall an instance where a group are trying to make a decision. A number of opinions will be expressed and ideas aired. But once the HiPPO has been given, options start to be closed off, limiting choice and potentially closing off useful avenues for investigation.

Whatever the reason this happens, intended or otherwise, it is vital that we avoid group thinking when working in Agile environments.

Agile teams are groups of equals, with no one person out ranking all others. This can sometimes be a difficult concept for new Agile adopters to understand. This group responsibility can be scary at first, with team members fearing individual retribution if it goes wrong. But once you show trust in a team to deliver, empowering them to resolve any problem in the best way they see fit, they will respond with greater sense of urgency and ownership.

In a recent experience, with a team unused to story points (read why story points are a good idea) we had a classic group think situation until someone spoke out and broke the consensus.

In this case the HiPPO had come up with a solution that we were in the process of story pointing. Everyone had given a low score apart from one person. This person normally got on quietly with their job and generally didn’t make a fuss. But in this case they hadn’t given a score and they looked worried.

I asked them a direct question and they explained that they hadn’t scored the story as they didn’t understand the solution proposed. The HiPPO was given again, at which point a fundamental design flaw was pointed out. This flaw arose from the fact that the opinion given shut down avenues of thinking and ignored possible solutions already implemented elsewhere in the system.  Once the team understood this, a very different conclusion was agreed by the whole team.

In this case it was a genuine mistake. But in other situations the HiPPO can often “railroad” a team into doing something without the team really understanding what they are being asked to do. In Agile this is dangerous and must be avoided.

When asked “Why have you done it this way?” the team will respond with that’s what we were told to do. In a traditional development environment, highly paid individuals come up with solutions for others to implement. This relies on the judgement of one person or a small group of people. They may get lucky, this simply entrenches the behaviour and thinking, it encourages them to do it again.

But all too often they are not and are simply repeating what they already know. Either way the whole team suffers from lack of ownership and demotivation. Agile processes are about collaboration and working as a team to deliver.

As mentioned in my last blog, The journey into Agile, Agile Scrum is a full contact sport. But to succeed as an Agile team, ego’s, job titles and pay grades are left at the door of every encounter. Whether you’re a customer or CEO, Scrum works best when a group of equals come together with a common goal.

So next time you are in a meeting, ask “Am I the HiPPO in the room?” and “What can I do to ensure that all options are considered not just mine?”.

And if you’re not, make sure the HiPPO is kept in plain sight!