A meeting room filled with five people, all looking at a long white sheet of paper, with one of the people holding a pen near it, contemplating writing on it. The sun shines brightly into the room through large windows.
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How to stop a ‘hippo’ from taking over your meetings

7 Feb 2023

James Louttit explains the concept of a ‘hippo’ in work meetings, how they can stifle creativity and what to do about them.

It’s a nightmare situation. The team is just starting to get into brainstorm mode. You’ve set up the session, given everyone a coffee and maybe a few pastries, the chat about what happened at the weekend has died down and you’re ready to answer the big questions.

No matter how well you have prepared for the workshop, there is one thing that can derail all the creativity in the room and stop people from giving their ideas and engaging fully. The worst thing is that it’s often unintentional.

I’m talking about the ‘hippo’ – the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. The moment the most influential person in the room expresses their view on a subject, they have tainted the discussion. All of a sudden, an entirely unnecessary aura of self-doubt, self-interest, frustration and politics enters the room.

Instead of thinking about the challenge in front of them, people’s minds shift to their next performance review or the last time they were given feedback or the way that the boss plays favourites. They don’t come forward with the creative ideas that they have, they don’t challenge the status quo and, in many cases, they don’t say anything at all.

As a meeting facilitator, I raise this subject quite often with very senior people, and every single one of them recognises the problem. These people did not get to be where they are without a level of self-awareness and an understanding of this kind of dynamic.

But even when you know about the problem, it’s really hard to stay quiet when you know you have a great idea that can move the discussion on and save everyone some time. Senior executives nowadays understand the importance of allowing their teams to come to their own conclusions.

They realise that ideas get more buy in, are easier to follow up on and are often just plain better when they come from the people closest to the problems. But even with that knowledge, and the best intentions in the world, human nature kicks in and the highest paid (or most confident) person does not let others go first.

Fortunately, there are a few techniques that we can use to change this dynamic. Whether you are the owner of the hippo (remember it’s your opinion that’s the problem, not you), or someone trying to navigate hippos in their organisation, these tools are powerful ways to increase the value you get from your meetings.

A cartoon image of a hippo tied up during a work meeting.

Concept by James Louttit. Image: Tais Krymova

Name the hippo

Simply by discussing the concept of the hippo and giving it a name can have an impressive impact effect.

You can bring it up in a one-to-one as a general observation about meetings of that type and discuss using the techniques below as part of the facilitation. If you handle this well, you will come across as empathetic, creative and observant.

If you want to use the above cartoon to make a joke out of it or share this article with your team, please feel free. I often bring the hippo problem out onto the table at the start of a brainstorming discussion and use it as the reason why I like the following techniques.

Silent writing

This very simple technique makes sure that everyone’s ideas are safely captured before the hippo gets a chance to ruin the creativity. Just give everyone a few post-it notes and a pen, write the question you want them to think about on the whiteboard and set a timer for three minutes. For remote workers, this can also be done in the chat window of a virtual meeting.

Make sure that there is no talking while people are writing their ideas down – it should feel a bit like an exam.

Once all those ideas are safely written down, ask people to bring them up to you one at a time and read them out. No discussion at this stage, just getting the ideas on the wall or in the chat window.

If you spot any themes coming up, group those together (this is called affinity clustering). Once everyone has given their ideas, you can move the discussion on to the merits or challenges of each one with other techniques like voting and effort/value matrices.

Parking lot

At the beginning of any brainstorming meeting, I always set up a parking lot. This is an area on the wall where you put any discussions that are dominating the meeting but are not adding value to the agreed goals. If you set it up at the beginning (write the words on the board and explain what it is) then people won’t feel targeted if you have to use it later on.

When that contentious issue that people just can’t let go of comes up, let the conversation go for a couple of minutes, but then jump in and say something like: “This is a really important conversation, but I don’t think it’s quite right for this meeting, let’s put it in the parking lot and I will follow up with people on it afterwards”.

This way, people feel like they have been heard and taken seriously and you can steer the conversation back to the goals of the meeting.

Just make sure that you do follow up on that issue afterwards, otherwise you will lose some of your political capital, which you’ll need for next time you are in this situation.

With just these few simple techniques, I have found that you can have a lot more control over your meetings, get much better ideas and input from a much wider range of people and not have your meetings trampled on by the dreaded hippo.

By James Louttit

James Louttit is an author, speaker and trainer on Impactful Project Management.

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