A HiPPO, or “highest-paid person in the room’s opinion,” is something all product managers face multiple times throughout their careers, whether they call it by that name or not. A HiPPO is someone who is perceived to have more “authority” about how to improve your product. HiPPOs can come from virtually anywhere, but they usually appear in the form and shape of an executive or a board member.

It’s important to first point out that usually, HiPPOs are not malicious. In fact, they normally come with good intentions. However as Aldous Huxley famously wrote, “Hell isn’t merely paved with good intentions; it’s walled and roofed with them. Yes, and furnished too.” And he’s right. Many well-intentioned ideas have yielded less than positive results.

There’s a reason we spend so much time researching and strategically planning our product roadmaps—intent doesn’t matter, results matter. And you can’t forget that when the head of sales comes into your office and demands that you drop everything and build his “super cool feature that will help close more deals.”

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How to Defend your Product Roadmap from HiPPOs

It can be difficult to say “no” to a HiPPO, especially if the executive, investor, or another stakeholder behind it is of particularly high-authority. But it’s best for all parties involved if you stand your ground. Don’t allow a HiPPO to back you into a corner and force you to rewrite the well-researched, data-backed product roadmap you’ve developed, just to include a feature or functionality they thought of over breakfast.

The trouble is, most HiPPOs simply don’t have the same in-depth knowledge you possess about your industry, customers, and product to see the flaws in their thinking. And as a product manager, simply saying “no, you’re wrong” is counterproductive when trying to deflect a HiPPO’s attack. You must lead them to see your perspective on their own, which can be very delicate work.

Here are a few tips for defending your product roadmap from the potential havoc of a HiPPO attack:

1. Never hide from a HiPPO.

Would you tell a key customer that you are not open to their feedback? Probably not. Look at executives, investors, and other stakeholders within your organization as internal customers. Just like external feedback, internal criticism is valuable too. And you certainly don’t want to be the product manager who refuses to listen. Even if you don’t act on internal feedback immediately, it’s important to hear it.

Sometimes, lending an open ear to HiPPOs is all it takes. Most people within your organization know that it’s ultimately your job to determine what happens with the product. So avoid jumping to conclusions about a HiPPO’s intentions—it’s reasonable to assume that they simply want to share their ideas with you. And if you don’t hear them out, you’ll never know what you’re potentially missing. Plus, hiding from an opinionated executive in the broom closet is not exactly the best career move.

2. A good offense is the best defense.

A well-researched thoughtfully prioritized product roadmap is the best defense against a HiPPO attack. You should be presenting the product roadmap to your entire organization at regular intervals anyway, which can be a great way to deter any rogue HiPPO attacks. If everyone knows what the product team is working on, why it matters, and what the impact of these developments will be, they are less likely to question things. And if you find that an executive is being rather pushy about implementing their idea, there’s no harm in referencing your product roadmap and walking the HiPPO through it again.

For best results, take your time explaining each initiative that’s on your roadmap (don’t be afraid of your roadmaps power), why and how it got there, and the anticipated outcomes of pursuing each initiative. You want the executive to see that your roadmap was not thrown together haphazardly and that every item on it is there for good reason. Finally, you may also consider explaining what would have to change within the existing plan in order to accommodate their request.

Read the Product Manager's Guide to Prioritization  ➜

3. Use data to support your current plans.

If presenting your product roadmap fails to defeat the HiPPO, turn to your product management arsenal and pull out some data. Opinions and emotions are subjective, but it’s difficult to argue with objective facts. You should have already used data to support the initiatives that made it onto your product roadmap. Now you can do the same to explain why something is of low priority or should not make it onto the roadmap at all.

There are two types of data that you can use to assist with this:

  • Qualitative data such as customer feedback, customer interviews, and insight gleaned from focus groups and user testing.
  • Quantitative data such as business metrics, customer metrics, product metrics, and market research.

4. Compromise but set clear expectations.

Sometimes you may not have enough data to defeat the HiPPO. In this case, additional research is beneficial for everyone involved. This is not to say that lack of data is reason enough to let the HiPPO run with their idea., But in the end, it could very well be that the idea in question is a wonderful business opportunity. Nobody knows until you do a little homework first.

If you don’t have enough information, don’t be afraid simply say so: “That is an interesting idea, but we don’t have enough information to make an informed decision about what to do with it” is a fantastic way to deflect without promising anything. If you are still feeling the pressure, offer to look into the matter and revisit the subject in a predetermined amount of time. This will give you the time you need to get the data, and it also gives the HiPPO time to further mull over their idea. Remember not to be deceptive about your plan. Be clear that you are merely researching the idea, not committing to executing it.

Takeaways

The best defense against a HiPPO attack is preventing one from happening in the first place. A clear, easy to communicate, well-researched product roadmap backed by data is your best defense against a HiPPO. When that isn’t sufficient, you should bring facts to the table to fight opinions. At the end of the day, you are in charge of the product, and you need to call the shots and ensure that every decision is well thought through and intentional. Don’t agree to build anything until you have done your research. You can’t manage a product properly when others take over and manage it for you.