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Is Your Boss Hijacking Your Product Roadmap? Try This.

March 16, 2016

Product Leadership

Are you locked in an uncomfortable power struggle with a HiPPO (hilarious acronym for “highest paid person’s opinion”) over your product roadmap? Have you been taking the heat from your team for letting the HiPPOs take over? Is your HiPPO full of legitimately bad ideas?

Although I’m a big fan of the “just say no” ethos, and an even bigger proponent of using every opportunity to reference your product roadmap, neither of those applies when the person looking to throw a wrench in your plans also approves your paycheck.

HiPPOs require a different kind of finessing and after a few years of struggling myself, I discovered a fairly elegant way to protect my teams and my product roadmap from those unwanted top-down proclamations. Here’s what will help you take back control and look good doing it: Get your teams to collectively decline with you.

The little process I’m about to share with you falls squarely under product leadership, and serves as a strong reminder to everyone around you that you will only respond to data-driven arguments, not arbitrary power grabs. Let’s get that HiPPO weight off your shoulders.

Easy breezy HiPPO management

Years ago when I was product manager at a startup, we had a micromanaging HiPPO who wasn’t shy about using his status to override upcoming priorities on our product roadmap.

What he was doing was the polar opposite of the user-centric culture I was trying to set at the company, and my product teams were getting ticked off about what felt like nonsensical disruptions to their projects.

I was at a point where my devs were peeved at me for not sticking up for our roadmap, and the HiPPO was unhappy with me for not accepting more of his pet ideas. I was stuck – and I was taking an awful lot of heat for being just a messenger.

After all, I wasn’t making the calls on my own. I was consulting with everyone else working on the product with me. I was looking at usage data and customer feedback. I was developing specs with the, and then making a judgment call.

So I hatched a process so that everyone – HiPPO included – could see the same inputs I was looking at when making product decisions.

I made the HiPPO throw ideas into a single idea backlog like everyone else.

I set my team up with an early version of ProdPad and told everyone to stop emailing me with their ideas. From now on, if an idea wasn’t in ProdPad’s idea backlog, I wasn’t going to consider it.  Even if you were the HiPPO.

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.

I asked everyone weigh in on the idea.

Now that everyone, including our HiPPO, had access to our idea backlog, I used the app to ping the team for their opinions.  

There really was no shortage of strong, well-reasoned opinions. After all, they’re close to the product in different ways, whether they’re devs, designers or marketers. They would come in weighing different angles, piggybacking on one another’s comments and together build a really compelling case for why we shouldn’t move forward on the HiPPO’s idea.

Now it was everyone else saying “nope.”

Now I had backup. Our HiPPO was hearing “no” from someone other than the product manager – and this worked entirely in my favor. He was used to me politely declining his ideas, but now I was coming to him with direct input from the specialists that we worked with.

I took full advantage of that. When we had private meetings, I would reference my team members and their concerns verbatim as I defended my roadmap and the plans I had developed with my team.

Once, a single really compelling reason from one of our devs was enough to shut down our HiPPO’s idea. If a dev comes out and says a suggested solution isn’t viable, and that he simply can’t build it within the existing parameters,  it’s a moot point.

Those kinds of inputs became a really important part of my negotiations because it gave him the opportunity to really understand why I wasn’t willing to move forward on some of his ideas.

For me, it was also the first time I realized how much my role as a product manager depends on drawing out the expertise of my team members rather than trying to do it all on my own.

As a product manager, you’re expected to push back. But hey, it’s really hard to push a HiPPO yourself. 

Janna Bastow is co-founder of ProdPad, software that helps product managers plan and deliver better products. Janna also organizes ProductTank events around the world, including Mind The Product, a global community of product managers. She likes to inspire great product conversations by asking: “What problem are you trying to solve?”

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Is Your Boss (Accidentally) Killing Your Best Product Ideas? How To Handle Your Hippo - Lighthouse LondonNandini JammiJim EmersonJon Watts Recent comment authors
Jon Watts
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Jon Watts

Great article Janna, I love the idea of everybody posting ideas to one idea backlog.

Jim Emerson
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I love this!

Nandini Jammi
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Thanks Jim! If you try it, let us know how it works for you. I’d love to know how it goes for you.

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