Is your boss (accidentally) killing your best product ideas? How to handle your hippo

A fallacy of workplaces is that senior staff are better at everything than the people who work for them. This is false in many ways, but creative intuition might be the most false.

Scott Berkun, Author of The Myths of Innovation.

Ever had to work for someone who couldn’t innovate their way out of a paper bag?

Or, someone who got over-excited by the shiny new thing they heard at a conference that had nothing to do with your customers’ needs? Or your product roadmap?

Us too.

Senior managers have the biggest influence on the direction and success of your product. But invariably, they have the worst ideas.

Harsh, yes, but time and time again we find this to be true.

As Dom Price from Atlassian recently explained on this podcast about team culture;

The best ideas don’t come from the most senior people. There is no correlation between tenure, age or any other kind of old-school traditional measures of seniority and great ideas. In fact, I think there might be a reverse correlation.

In the same way that the lightbulb moment is a total innovation myth, it’s a complete fallacy that your boss knows more than you.

Especially when it comes to new product ideas.

Often the longer you’ve been in a business, the more blinkered you are.

As Dom Price goes on to say;

Some of our best ideas come from our freshest people, because they don’t know what they don’t know. They break through walls they didn’t know existed.

More critically, the further you are away from the frontline of serving customers (as senior people tend to be) the less understanding you have about their problems.

Ideas which are grounded in customer insight and observable problems – however sketchy – are always the most powerful.

But it’s not just about coming up with better ideas, the real question is – can product development and management ever mix?

Can you ever middle-manage your way to innovation?

There may even be an inverse correlation between why people are promoted to senior roles and the Product Leadership mindset.

Scott Berkun, author of The Myths of Innovation, explains it like this;

To rise in power demands good political judgement, yet innovation requires a willingness to defy convention. Convention-defiers are harder to promote in most organizations, yet essential for progress. To assume senior staff are the best at leading change is a mistake.

It all comes down to an unconscious bias in the way organisations… are organised.

In most businesses, the overemphasis on the HiPPO – or “Highest Paid Person’s Opinion” – means the people with the biggest salaries still make the important decisions.

The result is that brilliant ideas can fall by the wayside, whilst the HiPPO’s weak product ideas are automatically taken forward, only to flop because customers didn’t want them in the first place.

This is so embedded in the fabric of how most companies operate that most leaders won’t be able to spot (or avoid) derailing products because they themselves are fundamentally part of the problem.

The end result is that teams become demoralised and stop contributing their (better) ideas because they’re never chosen.

As Gartner Analyst Mark Ruskino explains in this ZDNet article on ‘Ten Ways Businesses Kill Innovation’ most managers don’t mean to demoralise anyone;

You’re doing middle-management and you’re trying to be kind to people so instead of saying, ‘No, we’re not going to do that’, you find some other kind way of saying it. You say, ‘We haven’t got the resources right now but we’ll take a look at it next year shall we?

But if none of the ‘Let’s try it next year’ ideas are raised again, then teams are unlikely to come forward with suggestions again.

Management mindset versus Product Leadership

Most large organisations evolved with a management style rooted in the running of factories, rather than creative thinking.

It’s human nature to fall back on what you know; so few managers may realise that their experience works against them when it comes to developing products.

In the Gartner report on Taking Digital to the Core, Graham Waller writes:

Behaviours honed in a more industrialized economy (that is, a desire for certainty, a love of detailed plans, and a penchant for control) can be the enemy of key future digital business success factors — innovation and speed.

Likewise, doing more of what’s working, cutting risks and showing immediate returns are Management 101 … but totally fatal to product development.

In other words, managers aren’t just missing product leadership skills, they may have an innovation-killing modus operandi, without even knowing it.

It’s time to reframe product leadership

If we want to drive innovation and create products that people love, we need to promote product leadership as a discipline:

But, in the meantime, how the heck are you going to handle your HiPPO?

It’s difficult to say no to people with more power and salary than you. But it’s essential to do so.

We like this story from Janna Bastow, founder of Prodpad, on how she learned how to handle unhelpful ideas from senior management.

She describes how she stopped responding to individual suggestions and made everyone put them into a single idea backlog on her Prodpad app instead;

This was the great equalizer in a workplace where our HiPPO believed he could shoot me an email to push his pet ideas onto our product roadmap. I didn’t want him or anyone to email me with their ideas anymore, since this reinforced the false notion that I alone held the power of the product decision.

Once ideas were pooled in the idea backlog, the entire team was able to give objective feedback on them. It became clear which ones should, and more importantly shouldn’t, be taken forward.

In the same way our free, simple Distiller tool helps you to filter ideas in a completely bias-free way.

It’s a good tool to run ideas through for the next time your HiPPO bobs up with a suggestion.

Need some new, office-politics free ideas?

Perhaps you’ve been in your role a while and you suspect you’re developing blind spots of your own?

Or perhaps you’ve recently joined a new organisation and want to shake things up?

Either way, our Idea Generation Workshop can help.

This is refreshingly office-politics-free, practical workshop that results in fresh, fully validated ideas to take forward.