Enabling Constraints and Hippos

One of the most profound insights on enabling constraints came from Marc Burgauer… “Enabling constraints cannot form if a dominant hippo is involved in making the decisions”.


Enabling constraints form agents into a higher order systems. The higher order system provides feedback to the agents to constrain their behaviour and stabilise the enabling constraint.

Part of the process of enabling constraints is the micro-conflicts where the agents give and take in order to align with each other. This will only happen between “peers”. “Peers” means that one of the agents is not a dominant Hippo around whom all the other agents attempt to align. The dominant hippo might be considered the “Apex Predator” in apex predator theory. The apex hippo can dispatch any member of the group without any fear of reprisals. This means that the dominant hippo always wins the prisoner’s dilemma regardless of the outcome. The only way the apex hippo will fail is if the fitness landscape changes, i.e. from a change in the context, or an outside context threat (i.e. Another hippo from the outcome).

Teams and communities that trust each and work in aligned manner do not emerge with an apex hippo present. Instead, identity is formed based on the relationship with the dominant hippo. The goal of each member of the team is to align more closely with the dominant hippo than their colleagues. The goal is to maintain the pecking order. Relationships with other members of the team are incidental and unimportant.

At Skype, we had a apex hippo. Andrew Sinclair was the executive in charge of product. Andrew intuitively understood this and refused to engage in the decision making process. Instead, Andrew used his status and influence to act as a guardian of the process, frequently reminding participants of their responsibilities and the rules of the game, and keeping the group focused on the goal.

The Extreme Tuesday Club in London is the most successful community I’ve been a member of . Simply identifying yourself as a member lead to an immediate trusted relationship with other members. XTC did not have an apex hippo, however XTC had many many leaders to the point where even identifying the leadership was difficult. Conflict was about the only constant at XTC. Conflict and that it always happened on a Tuesday.

I have observed other groups based around an individual or a small group of individuals. Those individuals feel that the community is theirs. None of them evolved into a community where members would bond with each other purely on the basis they were interested in the same thing. More often than not these communities have leaders who are anointed by the apex hippo. They have a revolving door of new members joining as old members leave. They achieve little other than to act as a marketing channel for the apex hippo.

So if you want to build a team, or build a community around an idea, you will need to create an enabling constraint, stimulate micro-conflict, and prevent conflict avoidance.


First kill the apex hippo… especially if it is yourself.

About theitriskmanager

Currently an “engineering performance coach” because “transformation” and “Agile” are now toxic. In the past, “Transformation lead”, “Agile Coach”, “Programme Manager”, “Project Manager”, “Business Analyst”, and “Developer”. Did some stuff with the Agile Community. Put the “Given” into “Given-When-Then”. Discovered “Real Options” View all posts by theitriskmanager

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