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Where is the Damn Fire? Two Questions to neutralize that HiPPO

Product people are in the problem business, and step one of being in that business is asking questions.

Adam Thomas
Nov 5, 2018 · 5 min read

We’ve all been here before.

You walk into a meeting, coffee and notebook in hand, and all of a sudden, after a little small talk the highest paid person opinions(HiPPO) happens.

You know how it sounds: “We need to do X!”

If you work in product management, what happens next is where you, as a product person, earn your salary.

If you fail this test, that HiPPO, who doesn’t know it, just blew thousands or even millions of dollars.

No pressure.

Product People = Problem People — Simple as That

More than the “manager” of the product, we in “product” are in the problem business. It is our job to understand the why behind everything — and not just understand it, but communicate it to the teams around us.

As the Director of Product for Informed, and in my previous lives as a founder, architect and product strategist over the last twelve years, I’ve learned the importance of defining a problem.

How big is it?

Well, here is a list of things I’ve seen just because no one spent a few minutes (ok, fine, a few hours) contemplating the problem first:

  • A team completely miss the mark, causing significant delays for everyone else
  • A nine-figure project evaporate in utter chaos
  • Someone get fired after working eighty hour weeks on the wrong thing

Watching someone’s face go white from shock because they are cleaning out their desk AFTER not getting any sleep is a pain I wish on no one.

The HiPPO happens and happens pretty often.

That being said the HiPPO is a reality and, it is our job to make sure that opinion is aligned with a problem.

How do we do that?

I like to have two questions, ready to ask in any meeting to shape the conversation.

Two Heuristics — No Filler, Find The Fire

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

There are two questions I like to keep in my head when I hear that opinion

One — Where is the fire? (Where is “the problem?)

Two — Is this the fire we should fight? (Does the problem matter?)

You may read this and wonder, why?

Where is the problem?

Because sometimes there is no problem.

Let me repeat that, there is no problem.

If I tasked you with sitting down and asking what problems you and your company have solved for your users, and then balance that with the time spent, I wouldn’t be shocked if we came up with less than 10% of “problems” solved vs. time spent.

Most work we do isn’t connected to a customer problem or a user problem. Most of our work comes from a problem we have — the need to justify our existence.

This is why the executive talks about button color in a meeting, the engineer is ready to build something, and the product manager wants to pump out experiments.

They need to justify why they are here.

So, this is why this is the first question we need to ask.

And have the courage to push back if there isn’t any.

As product people, we need to be able to speak to the problem.

Why are we doing this, and who is it for? What are we helping them solve?

If you don’t hear this, then no need to move forward — full stop.

Does the problem matter?

So. Let’s say we know its a problem. Great.

How big a problem is it?

Let’s ask ourselves some questions:

  • Are we losing users because of this?
  • Are people investigating the competition?
  • Is our NPS going down?

If there is an issue here, how big is it?

We have a limited budget and even more limited time. Every time we don’t prioritize a problem we miss an opportunity to for alignment.

Understanding the problem, and its priority helps us:

  • Triage the problem — How does it affect the business? Where is the fire? Is it short-term or long-term win? Where does this fit?
  • Communicate the problem — What is this problem, who does it affect, why does it bother them, how does it inject itself into their daily lives, and when does it matter?
  • Translate the problem — Why should anyone on the solution side care? Why should engineering dedicate resources, why should executives give money, why should stakeholders put their neck out.

When every rower on a boat is going at their rhythm, we don’t go anywhere, even if we know where to go.

Problems are opportunities if they are there in the first place

I get it; we work in ambiguity.

So, it is easy to try to justify the work we are doing. Letting the HiPPO happen may get the meeting over — and I know the feeling, sometimes it feels better just to let it happen.

But, this is a Faustian bargain if I ever saw one. Sure, they stop yelling, but then, YOU and everyone else in the room have to start scrambling.

And scrambling doesn’t move the company forward, and it damn sure isn’t fun.

The next time you hear that HiPPO come out, start with these two questions and see what happens because spending 45 minutes seeing what something is, is far better than usingg 45% of your budget seeing what isn’t.

No executive would debate that.

Adam Thomas is a product strategist, startup founder, and leadership researcher with over ten years experience in the intersection of tech, creative, and nonprofit space. He can currently be found writing daily at his blog, Life as Usual and Directing Product Management at Informed. Click here to sign up for his newsletter.

Adam Thomas

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Adam is afraid of bees. But the future is impossible without them, so he is going to not only have to live with them, but embrace them.

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