The HIPPO Syndrome in Start-ups/ small Organizations: How it impacts Product Management

Entrepreneurs do not only live products — they breathe them as well. Their obsessions can sometimes unravel an awesome product like Apple, Twitter and Flip-kart — but at other times has the potential to lead successful products to disastrous experiences like Facebook Home. Have you ever wondered when newly successful entrepreneurs hire their first Product Manager, Product Owners and Analysts for their product team ? How is the experience working along-with your stakeholders who are creators or founders of the product? Why do these Stakeholders feel a lot of times that the PM team did not add any value? Why does the product Manager bear the burnt of criticism when he is always instructed to prioritize product delivery rather than being involved in product/feature discovery?

Let us delve deeper into the first question- Why are product Managers hired? The reason behind this is the root cause of the problem. Talking randomly to various start-up founders — I was surprised to hear the reasons — they wanted better documentation of their work or someone who could communicate the requirements to the Engineering teams and in some cases someone to co-ordinate with their clients. A reason that I heard, which is little sensible though still wrong, was that they wanted someone to maintain product backlog, SCRUM and Agile practices. Now would not hiring a Business Analyst, Scrum Master, Technical writers or any combination of these roles be a better solution? Of-course that was the need of the hour. But the management went the extra-mile , paid extra money to hire for the newly created role of the product manager because they felt that it would add value to the organization. Was the extra value clearly defined or understood by the stakeholders? Was that the main reason that necessitated hiring in the first place? Of-course no.

Product Managers get excited when they are offered a position in young start-ups or smaller Organizations. This is due to their peripheral notion that they would contribute with fresh ideas, perspectives and contribute in shaping the product from vision to implementation.

The Product Manager naturally approaches the meeting with stakeholders along-with a lot of enthusiasm and preparation. If you visualize the PM’s thoughts in celluloid- you can already see him talking, presenting his valuable views seen from a fresh, outsider perspective compared to the stakeholders who by now are too engrossed — too internally involved in the product. And finally — he/she gets wows, awe and claps. Unfortunately it does not happen in reality and many times because of the HIPPO syndrome.

When a HIPPO(Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) is in play whether in the discussion room, product discovery or in a stakeholder’s meeting — it takes precedence over everything else. In case of start-ups/ small organization- the HIPPO’s adorned hat is worn by the founders, CEO’s( who mostly is one of the Founders) and even the partners holding different roles in the Organization. In stakeholders meetings, features discovery and requirements sessions — it is very difficult for the product manager to convince them about his ideas and solutions.

In the complex tasks and processes related to Product Discovery and finalizing requirements, there is no approach which is wrong or right, but only better or worse. But when the stakeholders are possessive about the product and have already developed stubborn perspectives of their own, it’s very difficult to agree to bring a change in processes, evaluation criteria and outcome analysis to develop the right parameter to decision-making. Sometimes the product manager is totally excluded from decisions related to the product as the stakeholders who are involved with the product from the start ignore or underestimate the value a Product Manager can bring. Often they think that the onus is on the Product Manager to impress them like a magician and sweep them of their feet rather than contributing regularly in steps with an effective and incremental value.

In these situations, it’s common for the Supervisor who may be a founder himself to instruct the Product Manager to focus only on the day-to-day routine tasks to ensure product delivery. Along-with that, the Product Manager is also expected to get involved in tasks like documentation, daily co-ordination etc. which the stakeholders would like to out-source to him. So, Where does this lead to? The Product Manager is given different roles and responsibilities for which there was a need to hire him the first place but along-with those routine tasks there are unrealistic expectations for the Product Manager to sew miracles and solve the issues created until then.

This situation leads to discontent for the product manager and proves a backward step for his career. Whom or what does it finally impact? The product of-course and the stake-holders behind it. Because of the Hippo still wanting to win and not leaving his territory — the pond is filled with mud and needs cleaning, but will the Hippo give up for some time and leave. The product has lost fresh ideas and new perspectives. The stakeholders would have been relived of extra burden related to daily involvement in the product and would have focused on growth and strategy. Now they carry the extra burden of fire-fighting and clearing the mess.

Conclusion : So, what could have been different ? The need to hire could have been aligned with the right role to hire . The recruitment for product Management roles should also have led to entrusting the right amount of flexibility and authority to the person hired for the role. Good Organizations or product do not always thrive because the stakeholders are always involved; they prosper because they know when to take a step back to reflect, analyze , create and innovate.

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Evergreen Traveler and Nomad. A Business Consultant and Product Manager during day. Writer and Dreamer by night. Discovering ideas, passion, music.