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Hairballs and HiPPOs - Agile's Biggest Derailers

By Jay Anderson and Russ White

Have you ever been in a planning meeting where there is a lively exchange of ideas and great energy until an executive chimes in with something other than a take-it-or-leave-it opinion? Suddenly the room goes silent. The energy and ideas circulating moments before vaporize in an instant. It’s like a crushing weight crashed landed, forcing all life and breath out of the meeting. Time stands still! You’ve just had a first encounter with a HiPPO—the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion—and witnessed the death of progress.

Hairballs and HiPPOs

Or, perhaps you’ve experienced a situation in which enthusiastic progress is instantaneously halted by the introduction of a big, gnarly (and often obscure) issue that might happen sometime in the distant future—provided all of the planets align at the precise time. This is what we call a hairball. Hairballs can also assume the form of complex organizational rules and systems that must be followed in order for your innovative idea to be “properly vetted.” Whatever their form, hairballs occur with great frequency in organizations where there is resistance to change and/or fear of failure. It’s as if the organization generates white blood cells in the form of hairballs that are specifically intended to attack progress in order to maintain the status quo. Much like the threat to animals that real hairballs pose, these hairballs threaten to choke the breath out of Agile teams.

While HiPPOs and hairballs pose great threats to Agile environments, a HiPPO with a hairball is deadly. Here you have a really large mammal (important executive) with the added weight of a gnarly issue or regulatory refuse around its neck, lumbering around out of breath, gasping to survive amidst organizational change. Nothing escapes its crushing force. Agile Ready LeadersSM must proactively shield the environment against both HiPPOs and hairballs. We would suggest that doing so is one of the most important roles of the Agile Ready LeaderSM.

HairballSo, you’re an agile leader and a HiPPO coughs up a hairball in one of your team planning meetings. What do you do? In this situation, it is all too easy to completely lose control of your team and the great progress they are making. First things first. Remember the quadrants that we introduced earlier: be kind, be honest, be responsible and work in small increments? These things are as important in the moment as they are in the long run. Stay calm.

Next, we would suggest that your biggest worry right now is prioritization. Your team’s priorities are about to be hijacked and diverted. At this moment, you have to realize that prioritization is also your biggest weapon. You must determine whether placing this work (an opinion, or a hairball) in front of all the other work that is happening is okay, or not okay. If you have a well-established Agile process, you should also have a well-established and agreed-upon prioritization scheme. Sometimes you can neutralize the HiPPO’s opinion by simply saying “Okay, we can make that our number one priority but, as a result, these other things will be deferred per our normal prioritization process.” The second part of this statement is important: Adding work into a backlog is not a zero-sum game and you need to make the reprioritization explicit. Of course, depending on the HiPPO in question, the explicit mention of priorities could get you fired…in which case, we’ll suggest a different approach because you can’t help your team if you don’t work with them any longer. A few useful approaches include:

  • Data and experimentation – Suggest that the HiPPO’s idea has merit and ask if there are ways that it can be tested. Experimentation might only partially disrupt progress on the backlog. Data trumps opinion, but the lack of data leaves you with only opinions.
  • Customer input/impact – Discuss how changing priorities will impact all customers (HiPPO’s priorities frequently focus on single-customer crises). Do you have input from a number of customers, or can you quickly get some?
  • Delay – If you’re in a scrum-type environment, suggest that after you complete your current iteration of work, you will pick up the new work in the next one. This is the beauty of working in small increments.
  • Dialog – If your organizational environment is healthy enough encourage a robust dialog of the situation (perhaps role-play the devil’s advocate). Your goal here should be to prevent unhealthy “group think” and to resolve the issues for the benefit of your customers.
  • Why? – Use the 5 Whys technique to get to the root issue and then solve for that.

The above list is obviously non-exhaustive. The main goal is to make sure that your team’s priorities are explicit and transparent. This is important because informed decisions can only be made—with the best interest of the customer in mind—when the real situation is clear. It’s okay to change priorities. It is typically not okay to inject work and assume that your priorities (deliverables) will not be impacted. This simply leads to disappointment for the customer and the HiPPO, which, in turn, demoralizes the team and creates turnover.

Hairball and HiPPO problems need to be carefully teased apart. The Agile Ready LeaderSM must constantly be concerned with progress over perfection. She must constantly protect the team from being derailed by issues. Her focus is on helping the team to break big issues down into smaller and smaller tasks that can be accomplished in the short term. By solving pieces of the puzzle, learning can occur more quickly—and the big HiPPO may learn that the hairball doesn’t need to be addressed after all. This is not to suggest that Agile Ready LeadersSM are unconcerned with long-term goals and objectives. Indeed, these leaders are highly concerned with strategy and long-term success. They must, however, focus on achieving long-term goals as a series of short-term successes. As the Chinese proverb states: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” We would suggest that a journey of a thousand miles is made up of many small successive steps, where each step is taken deliberately while adapting to the environment along the way.

Prioritize, prioritize, then prioritize some more. Make sure that your priorities are explicit and visible. Be honest about the situation when a HiPPO shows up with a hairball. Be kind as the discussion unfolds; the HiPPO isn’t trying to spoil your day…he or she has a problem and you can help the HiPPO solve it. Make sure to be responsible and make sure that the HiPPO understands the impact of the change. Above all make sure that, as an Agile Ready LeaderSM, you do all that can be done to work through the situation without causing negative impact to your customers. Oh, and don’t get crushed by that HiPPO…your team needs you.

Are you ready to develop as an Agile Ready LeaderSM? Read previous installments of this blog series and stay tuned for more.

This is the third blog in a series on Agile leadership. 
Part 1: Becoming Agile Ready Leaders 
Part 2: Agile Ready Leaders Get Their Start in Kindergarten
Part 4: Keep Your Hands and Feet Inside the Vehicle
Part 5: Agile Leadership: This is Going to Hurt

Jay AndersonJay Anderson is passionate about helping people work in teams that solve complex problems. Over the past five years, he has been leading the transformation of the technology department at DDI through the application of multiple Agile methods.


Russ WhiteRuss White is Vice President of Technology Strategy in DDI’s Global Technology Group. He and his team are experts at applying Agile management techniques to a wide range of business environments beyond software development.

Posted: 17 Jan, 2017,
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