It's mid February, and it's only a few days until that very important day of the year that partners don't want to forget if they want to stay in their relationships.  Yes, I'm talking about HR Business Partners and Hippo Day on Feb 15th.

Pygmy Hippopotamus:  Source

Pygmy Hippopotamus: Source

Often when running workshops for scenario planning, we come across what I've come to know as the HiPPO Phenomenon - the HiPPO is the Highest Paid Person's Opinion.  This generally happens in organizations that are highly structured, and where there is a low tolerance for dissent or creativity.  The opinion of the Highest Paid Person (typically a senior manager) is dominant, and the opinions of others are dismissed - and, after a while, not offered at all.

One of the most critical components of Strategic Workforce Planning is to determine which factors may have an impact on the future workforce (Environment Scanning), and which of these have an uncertain outcome.  The outcome of these discussions is a process of scenario planning, which is about qualitatively exploring an uncertain future.  Like any brainstorming activity, ideas should come from a wide range of perspectives, and and having both a variety and volume of opinions leads to a more comprehensive and valuable outcome.

In other cases, you see "groupthink".  Social Psychologist Irving Janus coined the term Groupthink in 1972 to describe what happens when a group makes faulty decisions because of group pressures. There's a good resource about groupthink here.  You might see an example of groupthink where there is an opinion - stated as a fact - that won't necessarily hold up to scrutiny, but nobody is prepared to question it.  Here are some classic examples:

  • "We're an employer of choice" (because it says so on our website); 
  • "We really need to get our turnover down" (our turnover is 3% and our workforce is aging)
  • "Generation Y workers are disloyal" (66% of all employed Gen Yers say they will switch careers sometime in their working life, compared with 55% of Gen Xers and 31% of Baby Boomers, according to Pew Social Trends.  But in fairness, Baby Boomers are currently aged between 48 and 66; whereas Gen Y are aged between 12 and 32.  If this says anything about Gen Y, it's not that they are disloyal - it's that 1/3rd of them are very optimistic.)

One of the best techniques I know of for dealing with both groupthink and HiPPO phenomena is a modified version of the Delphi Method.  This is a structured way of getting feedback from a group where the effect of deference to HiPPOs and an unwillingness to dissent are both minimised.  It works like this:

  1. Participants offer their insights / thoughts / ideas in an anonymous survey. In the case of environment scanning, this might be as simple as asking them which 5 things they think might affect the workforce in the next 10 years in each of the categories of Policital, Environmental, Social, and Economic trends.
  2. The coordinator collates this information and comes up with a list of all factors, and distributes them to the same group of people.
  3. The participants provide comments and ratings on all of the factors - even their own.  Once again, this feedback is anonymous; and return these to the facilitator.
  4. The coordinator yet again compiles and sends out another round with the comments (anonymously) incorporated.  
  5. The participants give each factor a rating and send back to the facilitator
  6. The results are tallied and the final list of factors determined. 

This method allows free expression of opinions, encourages open critique, also allows admission of errors when revising earlier judgments.  The results are dramatic - more often than not, it's not the "hippo" who comes up with the most innovative insights and strategies, and all participants are more willing to constructively evolve their own, and others', ideas.

So don't forget HiPPO day this Saturday, and celebrate it by being prepared to speak up where you have a well thought out and justifiable opinion that goes against the accepted norm - regardless of your pay rate.  And if you suspect you might be a HiPPO (or is that a HiPP?), try to encourage others to offer their opinions before you offer yours.  Happy HiPPO day everybody!