Dealing with hippos

How to contend with last-minute project changes from management

So you're thrashing out the final details of, say, how to implement the next phase of your CMS or your ERP system. You've gone from the big picture ("We need a system to ...") and after countless meetings finally got down to details ("We need these fields on this form and this link will point to ...").

You're feeling good. You've finessed the departmental politics and got all of the stakeholders in broad agreement. You've lined up the budget, the resources, hell, you can see the goal posts in sight. You can make this happen! You are an IT god! And then ...

And then in comes the Hippo. The Hippo could be your boss, the CIO, the VP of Sales, the CTO or even the CEO. You might be a big fish in the organizational pond, but the Hippo? Well, he's a Hippo. A much bigger beast than you.

The Hippo's pitch usually goes something like, "Hey, that's cool but what about ...?" What follows is often bizarre, irrelevant, capricious, vague, foolish, simplistic, ridiculous, aggravating or pointless. Or all those things at the same time.

Whatever it is, the Hippo is on a different page. He may have the right book and sometimes even the right chapter, but he has chosen a page you have never seen let alone read.

"What we need is ..." says the Hippo, and the result -- if you're lucky -- is a new field or a new green button on a user interface that has bugger all to do with what you need to achieve. If you're unlucky, he's going to invent a whole new business process that no one needs.

The Hippo's reasoning for whatever he thinks to be crucial is usually vague. For something like a green button he may mutter some article he read years ago in the Reader's Digest that said that humans recognize objects in green faster than other colors because when we were all dragging our knuckles on the ground it aided our survival. And he's not kidding! He really believes this makes sense!

Your problem is how to make the Hippo happy, because an unhappy Hippo at best means you're going to get into a knock down, drag 'em out fight (a battle of wits with an unarmed man is never much fun), and at worst could leave you concerned about your job.

While I have had my fair share of run-ins with Hippos, I hadn't heard them called such until I had lunch today with my old friend Jim Sterne. Jim is president of the Web Analytics Association (he asked me to tell you his next conference is forthcoming and it turns out in the rarified atmosphere of e-metrics the concept of organizational Hippos is commonplace.)

The reason this group has identified the Hippo is that they have an answer for him: Measure. Whatever it is -- a green button, a field on a form, a new business process -- track it and see, in detail, how it performs. When you get hard evidence that something in fact doesn't work then you have grounds for getting rid of it.

Until you have evidence, you and the Hippo will just butt heads and you know whose is bigger. It's a case of speak softly and carry a big measuring stick.

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