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The Guardrails of Growth
Maximize experiment velocity while minimizing internal pushbacks
The ownership paradox
The value of growth teams' unique risk-taking mindset lies in their high-tempo experiments. To fully leverage this unique talent, you’ll need to factor in extensive failure to learn what works. That’s why it’s key to maintain a high experiment velocity to identify success.
But it’s not as easy as it sounds. One of the biggest issues growth teams encounter when planning and executing experiments is the ownership paradox. Growth teams inherently operate across the whole customer experience, and to do this effectively, they must stay nimble, rapidly switch gears, and wear multiple hats. Consequently, they can’t own a specific area of the UX — they actually can’t own anything! But they’re supposed to deploy tests and changes on virtually any feature, piece of code, and design!
On the contrary, you can’t have a growth team doing incremental work like maintaining existing features, doing customer support, or bug fixes. Doing so will kill the purpose and spirit of the growth team altogether, and you’ll turn them into a regular product team (with no ownership!).
What’s at the core of this paradox?
As humans, we tend to develop attachment, ownership and even pride over the effort we put in and the work we do. So when someone comes in and changes something you built — especially if that’s to “improve” your work — you’ll likely trigger a defensive or territorial reaction, typical of a parent with her baby. You might think things like: “These growth folks think they know my job and can do better than me?!”
Let’s say a growth lead is convinced that removing three questions on the activation flow will massively improve conversions. But the activation PM comes in and says, “Nope, you can’t change or remove these questions of the onboarding flow because we must gather that data to personalize the core user experience on their dashboard”.
Or let’s say we want to avoid the product experience and focus on improving website conversions through the pricing page. Then some folks from product marketing will step in and say things like, "You want to remove some features in the pricing table because you think showing it will simplify the pricing and improve conversions? I believe more info on pricing increases clarity and removes FAQs, hence improving more qualified conversions."
If these challenges sound familiar, we can advise you on the best approach to bring all your teams together and ensure long-term cross-functional collaboration that leads to hyper-growth.
The local maximum bias
Sometimes, growth teams focus so much on increasing a metric that they tunnel themselves into short-term optimizations without realizing that the same KPI growth might hurt the company — and potentially even that same KPI — in the long run.
For example, when I was at Auth0, I developed a core belief when marketing to developers — that pricing must be visible and transparent.
If we tested simplifying the pricing table by removing how much each plan costs and what specific features they have, it was very likely that conversions of the "Contact us" CTA right below it would improve. If you can't see exhaustive info about a product’s pricing, you'll get in touch to learn more. However, in the long run, that might get developers thinking: "This company is secretive — they don't want to share their pricing and might be charging people differently based on their willingness to pay. I don't want to work with a company like that."
That’s why when the growth team wanted to deploy tests on the pricing page, I had to enforce a tenet of keeping it clear and visible. And even though the pricing page conversions increased in the short term, they would have slumped long-term. Without these tenets, these tests would have resulted in short-term improvements — or local maxima — but would have hurt long-term growth.
To recap, growth teams need not own anything to stay nimble and keep experiment velocity high. But ownership paradox and local maximum bias lead to internal pushbacks from other teams, which slow the velocity down.
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The growth guardrails
So, how do you avoid civil wars caused by the ownership paradox, local maximum bias, and, most importantly, a growth slowdown?
You need the growth teams to convince other teams to deploy experiments in their own areas of ownership. It’s like telling a parent that their kid needs that haircut and not the one the parents want. 🤓
Growth teams need to set up their growth guardrails.
The growth guardrails is a document that maps the relationship between the growth and other teams across the company — marketing, product, design, sales, success, and so on — defining the key constraints and necessary approvals that allow running growth experiments without roadblocks and at high velocity.
The guardrails of growth ensure that growth experiments are agreed upon ex-ante in a way that minimizes friction from the ownership paradox and alignment challenges, fast-track approvals, and maintains experiment velocity.
To be successful, the guardrail document must contain the following:
The areas of the user experience that allow testing — across marketing, product, and sales — are off-limits, and the ones that need specific approval from management and the reason why each.
The tenets that constrain the types of tests to be conducted in each area are based on core beliefs and assumptions aligned with the product, personas, or company’s mission. For example, a belief regarding personas could entail the fact that “pricing must be transparent”; a brand design tenet could prescribe “you can't use photography for any test, you must use illustrations”; or a marketing tenet could advise “do not remove the signup button from the main navigation or hero”.
Setting your guardrails
How do you set your guardrails for successful use? Here’s the step-by-step process we’ve used at Auth0:
Growth brainstorm. In an internal meeting, the growth team defines what areas of the user journey they want to focus on in the short term and brainstorm the type of experiments they’re considering deploying and which are less relevant for now.
Growth leader approval. As a second step, the growth team meets with the growth leader (eg. VP of Marketing, Growth, Product, Sales) to sense-check and approve their initial scope to ensure it’s aligned with the company’s goals and get feedback on how the experiments should be constrained. The goal is to get the Growth leadership backing in case internal pushbacks arise in the future.
Middle-management approval. As a final step, the growth team must meet with product managers and product marketing managers (And any other roles that own something the growth team wants to test with) within the interested areas across the company to pitch and discuss their initial guardrails. This is the most crucial step, which is not always straightforward, and might include multiple (heated) conversations and back and forth. If stakeholders can’t agree, they’ll escalate their respective cases so that the growth leader will chat to the VP in their respective area — Marketing, Product, or Sales — and tweak the guardrails until a fair compromise is reached.
Quarterly guardrails update. As the focus of the growth team changes with the company’s evolution, it’s important to go back to the growth guardrails doc and review its scope. When new teams are formed, new stakeholders' relationships must be mapped out, and new priorities and tenets must be set. Take the time to refresh your growth guardrails to ensure the growth team builds the necessary relationships to come across as a partner and not as an intruder.
Ready to set your very own growth guardrails with your teams?
At an operational level, the key benefit of the growth guardrails is that the growth team will be able to run much faster because it removes the need to request approval for cleared experiments. All they need to do is inform the interested teams that the experiment is happening.
The overarching idea of the growth guardrails is to maintain a healthy tension between enabling the growth team with enough flexibility to run experiments while focusing their scope according to broader company principles and beliefs developed in the core product and marketing UX.
Growth guardrails are not just a critical operational exercise that keeps experiment velocity and the company’s competitiveness high but also an important cultural process that encourages hard conversations across the company and enables a transparent cross-functional collaboration, encouraging fair compromise and developing talent maturity.
If your growth team struggles to collaborate across the company, let’s work together to set your growth guardrails and ensure long-term hypergrowth.