The Hippo Problem in Business Advice

Which animal do you think Hippos are related to?

My guess was elephant because in my native language Hippo was called water-elephant. Hippos are big, grey, herbivores and spend most time in water so they were related to elephants – so thought my culture.

In the modern world early naturalists thought Hippos must be related to pigs. I guess they used other physical cues like looks and teeth and that they both wallow in mud and decided on pig relation.

Not until other scientists looked at relevant evidence, not just what is convenient, available, fits a story, and supports one’s pre-conceived notion, did we find out the real relation.

Take hippos, for example. Early naturalists thought hippos must be related to pigs. After all they look somewhat alike and have similar teeth. But fossils and genetic studies showed that hippos’ closest living relatives are actually dolphins and whales. (NPR)

No one who looks only at the superficial symptoms and what is overt could have come to this conclusion.

We have a Hippo problem in business advice. More like Hippo crisis with bigger ramifications than not getting Hippo-Dolphin connection right.

Look at successful businesses. Look at their seven traits. If only you had them your business would be successful too.
Look at this magical number Net Enchantment Scores of highly successful companies. If only you get your score to that level you would be insanely profitable too.
Look at Brand V’s successful social media campaign. You better get on twitter and start conversations with your customers.

Hundreds of management/marketing/business gurus, thousands of books,  and hundreds of thousands of articles bombarding us with advice on how we should run a business based only what they saw as a relation between Hippo and PIg.

And millions of fans who have suspended skepticism to embrace a Guru’s preaching and spread it around, taking solace in the numbers. After all millions of people who read the blog articles and pass them around can’t be wrong and we are not alone in following Guru’s footsteps.

The Hippo problem in business advice is not just the fault of self-confident Gurus with not an iota of self doubt pushing their snake-oil with no repercussions. We who accept and embrace these prescriptions without asking difficult questions are bigger part of the problem.  Questions like,

  1.  Is my business like the Hippo Guru is talking about?
  2. What evidence will cause Guru’s advice to be wrong? Sure I run cupcake store, does that mean my customers want engagement and not just cupcakes?
  3. What is the opportunity cost of following in Guru’s footsteps and getting it wrong? Should I adopt razor-blade model because Guru says that is the future?

In the recent past, before the explosion of self-anointed Gurus, we had a framework for making decisions. We did not make decisions because someone else did it that way, we looked our goals, our customers, market dynamics, marketing channels, sales channels and our ability to compete.

Now everyone is a Business Guru. There is no need for looking for evidence, the Gurus know. They know just from the few anecdotes they have seen – be it a farmers market vendor, Grateful Dead or Harry Potter movie. They have their prescriptions for us on how to run a business, do marketing and price products.

The problem is not going to go away because Gurus get self-realization (intended). I think one can’t be a Guru peddling snake-oil prescriptions unless one loses all self-doubt and strongly believes in what they are selling. These people are selling to a segment with need for magical prescriptions – like engaging in social media, telling stories or to be remarkable.

Until we the consumers of business advice stop worshipping Gurus and seek relevant evidence the Hippo problem in business advice is going away.

Are you ready to stop following your Guru and start asking tough questions?

2 thoughts on “The Hippo Problem in Business Advice

  1. Sounds a bit like Cargo Coult?

    Basicaly looking at your competition and saying to yourself “They do X, we must do X as well to be as successful”. Copying what they do, their style, without understanding why they do it, what works about it, why they are really successful.


  2. This is something I’ve never though about before but it makes so much sense after reading it here. Business advice is not something that you can just role out in general terms in order to help out every business. Business is a lot more niche than that and what worked for others may not work for you. It’s about finding out what will be great in your industry and ignoring the fact that something that won’t work for you has worked wonders for other businesses. Thanks for sharing.


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