Ask CEOs about their priorities within their companies, and it typically won’t be too long before they mention some form of “improve innovation.” CEOs in IBM’s recent Global C-Suite Study stated that accelerating innovation was central to their goals.
But for all that time and resources spent, former Google product manager Dan Siroker, CEO of customer experience platform Optimizely, says that one cultural misstep could be preventing you from getting the best and most creative input from your team: HiPPO bias.
It’s not the deadly African mammal. Rather, HiPPO bias is the tendency to accept “highest paid person’s opinion” as the most valuable.
Siroker argues that automatically deferring to the most senior person in the room is an ineffective and outdated approach that must be replaced. “In most organizations, they have a command and control culture, where decisions get made at the top of the organization. Typically, whether they’re right or wrong, whether they’re using data or not, it ends up falling on usually the most senior person in the room,” he says.
While that may work in organizations that need to be hierarchical, such as the military, for the most part, it could be robbing you of important input from other members of the team. When you give everyone access to the data they need to provide informed opinions and feedback—and create an environment where such feedback is welcome—you invite all your team members to contribute the best they have to offer, he says.
How do you prevent HiPPO bias? There are a few ways to ensure it doesn’t become a dominant force in your company.
Embrace A Culture Of Transparency And Using Data To Make Decisions
Siroker tells new Optimizely employees two things: First, the company values “ownership” in its culture. That means that you shouldn’t be afraid to bring up new ideas and advocate for them. “I want everyone at Optimizely to own their successes and failures, and empower others to own theirs,” he says.
But that only works if there’s transparency, he says. He makes a commitment to new hires to be as transparent as possible, especially with data. When people have equal access to data, they can make better decisions and bring well-formed ideas to the table. If the only people who have access to the company’s data are the leaders, then they are cutting off one of the fundamental elements of fostering innovation in their teams, he says.
“It’s hard to imagine 10 years from now, any large successful company that isn’t embracing a culture of transparency and using data to make decisions,” he says.
Siroker’s experience with speaking to leaders and presenting new ideas extends back to his days at Google when he was an associate product manager. “I was at the lowest rung in the organization, straight out of school. I had to go in and actually pitch the founders of Google on a controversial idea. This was, for me, as a kid straight out of school, not a very easy task,” he recalls.
He consulted a mentor who suggested he present the idea as an experiment. The pitch included a limited test for the idea, the data that would be collected, the potential risk, and how it could be mitigated. They gave him the green light. That experience stayed with him and showed him the potential for new ideas to come from anywhere.
Treat Ideas As Conversations
Sometimes the ideas don’t arrive fully formed, so it’s often best to treat them as conversation, says workplace communication expert Laura Crandall of Slate Communication. When you create an environment where ideas can stir collaboration, you can often refine them without making the originator feel like the idea was co-opted or changed unnecessarily, she says.
“You don’t have to pretend that you know—the wisdom is in the room, so just use it,” she says.
Accommodate Different Styles
In addition, Crandall says that people have different communication styles, so having different methods of collecting feedback can also be useful. Some people aren’t comfortable challenging an idea in front of a room full of people, for example. If you want their feedback, you might be better off having a one-on-one meeting with them later or inviting them to think about the idea and send an email or text message once they’ve had a chance to digest it.
With nearly 400 employees, that kind of individualization isn’t easy. But Optimizely has a weekly “all-hands” meeting where they share the highs and lows of the week. It’s a forum where anyone can ask a question on any topic. If an employee isn’t comfortable doing so, they can anonymously text their question. Siroker will read it and answer it in front of the group. The company also uses Slack for collaboration and feedback.
Purposefully Seek Out More Ideas
Finally, seek out ideas from people who may be reluctant to share, says Kate Zabriskie, founder and CEO of HR consultancy Business Training Works, Inc. Train managers to encourage employees to explore and present their ideas. Work on ways to track new input, and remind those who aren’t contributing that they’re welcome to do so, she says. If you find that you have “yes” people who placate instead of participate, leaders may need to work on how they communicate their anti-HiPPO feelings to ensure that they’re not inadvertently falling into this pattern.