How to define a strategy for your growth team. A step-by-step guide for new leaders at startups

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How to define a strategy for your growth team. A step-by-step guide for new leaders at early stage companies.

How to define a strategy for your growth team. A step-by-step guide for new leaders at startups 1

I’ve spent the last five years working on growth teams at tech startups. During that time, I’ve learned a lot of growth tactics and frameworks. But nobody ever taught me how to create a strategy and communicate it to other levels of leadership. As my career has evolved, those two things have become essential skills.

I am still not an expert in corporate communication, but I have learned a few tips that are helpful for new growth leaders, mostly by making mistakes myself. Truth be told, the first time I created a formal strategy was a disaster.

Here’s what happened: in Q1 2018, I had been leading the growth team at Wistia for a few months. I was new to a formal leadership role, but I thought it was going okay. The team was running lots of experiments, learning a ton, and getting a few wins that really helped the business.

Over time it became clear we were operating quickly, but not efficiently. Our resource needs were changing project-to-project, we didn’t have a formal roadmap, and we were starting to bump into other teams. To help with alignment, the leadership team asked if I could share the strategy and roadmap for the team.

I had never created a formal strategy before, but was excited to have more responsibility. This is what leading a team is all about, right?

When I got back to my desk, my excitement wore off and I realized I had no idea what a successful strategy looked like, or how to create one.

I looked on the company wiki for examples of other documented strategies and roadmaps, hoping to combine the approaches from the go-to market strategy with the product roadmap into something that would work for a cross-functional team. Those documents were helpful, but I didn’t think either approach made sense for a growth team.

I reached out to some growth folks working in leadership positions at other tech companies for help. I found that most planned their work a few weeks out and worked off project docs and Gantt charts. Nobody had created and shared a formal strategy for their leadership teams.

So I decided to follow my startup instincts and run head-first into the challenge. I winged it.

I started by writing down the best ideas that our team had brainstormed for our roadmap already. Then, I fleshed out the ideas and turned them into detailed project plans for the next six months. Finally, I translated those project plans onto a Gantt chart. I included some quantitative goals explaining the business impact if it all went according to plan. Nailed it, right?

I thought so, but when we reviewed my plan, it didn’t go so well. The leadership team said it wasn’t really a strategy. They wanted to understand the bigger picture, review my high-level priorities, see how the individual ideas contributed to common themes, and forecast my resource needs.

It was an embarrassing moment, but the feedback was clear.

I needed to get better at creating, and communicating my strategy to be successful at the next level

This seems to be a common theme among individual contributors transitioning into leadership roles at startups.

Individual contributors are successful by creating and executing projects but typically have very little experience creating a strategy. That was true for me.

For such an important activity, there’s surprisingly very little information available to help a new leader creating a strategy for the first time.

Ever tried Googling “example strategy doc for growth teams working at tech startups?” You’ll find a bunch of growth tactics, but no examples of a strategy, or much help creating one.

So when a talented growth marketer, or growth product manager, moves into a leadership role, they struggle like I did. It’s nearly impossible to learn to “be more strategic” or “communicate more concisely” without strong examples or mentorship.

More traditional teams, with established approaches and clear lines of ownership, might not need a documented strategy at an early-stage startup. Their scope and responsibilities are more clear-cut.

But growth is a new cross-functional discipline, with self-directed KPIs, and overlapping areas of ownership with marketing and product. A growth team absolutely needs to create and document their strategy. Without it, they risk being misaligned with leadership, may bump into other teams, and not acquire the resources they need to be successful.

Without documenting and communicating what you’re focused on, and why, a new Head of Growth risks failure.

Creating a strategy is hard. Especially for new leaders of cross-functional growth teams.

After struggling for years, I have refined a system that helps me collect and translate my thoughts into a cohesive strategy that I can circulate around the company for input and alignment.

This framework was created specifically to help people like me, growth leaders working at early stage tech companies. It has been incredibly helpful for me to communicate and align with other members of leadership, as well as new members joining the company.

This won’t be perfect for every organization, but should be directionally accurate, and give you more confidence when transitioning from individual contributor into a leadership role.

The system results in a document that outlines the trajectory of the growth team in your organization, including its:

  • Mission and vision
  • Key operating principles
  • Strategic direction
  • Three month roadmap
  • Resource allocation
  • Longer term hypothesis

But don’t just copy/paste those bullet points into a blank Google doc now. Follow the system below and you’ll end up with a much stronger plan.

Here’s the system I use to create and document my growth strategy

You can also download a version of this plan here, in case you want to save it for later.

Start with a structured brainstorm about growth opportunities in your company

Many new leaders start with a blank document and develop their strategy as they go, but that’s much harder in my experience. You’ll want to organize your thoughts first, then later summarize and refine them.

Creating a strategy doc at the same time you’re brainstorming what to include in the strategy is one of the biggest mistakes new leaders make. It’s like paving a road when you’re still debating where you want to go. It’s not the best way to utilize your resources.

Here are some questions to help you brainstorm ideas you can later evolve into a cohesive strategy.

Where are the biggest opportunities in your funnel to exponentially grow the business?

Many new leaders look at the funnel and think that every area should be improved. While this is technically true, you need to be hyper-focused at an early stage company. As a leader, you have access to more resources and need to get better at focusing to maximize your impact. Your goal is to identify one or two areas that present big opportunities for the business. To answer this question you might want to create a growth model and use some quantitative analysis to let the data guide your thinking.

What are the highest-leverage initiatives (projects, programs, or experiments) to capitalize on those opportunities?

After you determine your focus area(s), brainstorm lots of ideas, then prioritize those with the biggest impact. Many growth marketers and PMs are used to working around resources constraints which forces you to think more narrowly. Challenge yourself to think big here, and without constraints. Don’t just explore incremental projects and experiments, but think about new programs that might unlock exponential growth. Then prioritize your list based on impact.

What are the common themes or stories that connect these growth initiatives:

Think about how the initiatives you prioritized above fit together, and try to summarize into themes, stories, or frameworks. This will be used later to help communicate your strategy to the rest of your leadership team, who aren’t experts in growth. So take your time on this one.

What does business look like (for your company and your user-base) if those activities are successful?

Now think through the details of this future if everything goes according to plan. Describe both how the business operates in this future world, as well as what the user journey looks like. This will be used to help explain your vision of the future.

What goals and milestones will help you measure progress or course correct before it’s too late?

As a leader you want to hold yourself accountable, and communicate how you’re thinking about success to others. Try to define both qualitative and quantitative checkpoints to track your progress.

What are the resources you’ll need to accomplish the goals and vision above?

Communicating what you’ll need to be successful will help you align with other teams and gain access to the resources you need. It will also allow you to know if you won’t have those resources, so you can revise your roadmap and goals if needed. Every business will have resource constraints but this will help describe the optimal state and help you explain trade-offs down the road.

What are the longer-term levers that might be worth exploring as you learn more about the business?

You will likely have many opportunities that might not be included in your initial plan, but may be worth exploring down the road. You want to include these in your manifesto to communicate that you’ve got your eye on them, and share when it might make sense to explore further.

— — — — — — —

After answering those questions above, you will have surfaced some great ideas and have the building blocks of a growth strategy. But stop don’t there.

Then define operating principles for your growth team

A growth team typically operates completely differently from other teams at the company, so educating others about how you do the work and make decisions, is as important as communicating what work you’ll be focused on.

These operating principles are also helpful as you scale the team and onboard new teammates.

They will be specific to your company and your personal views, but I think it’s helpful to include things like:

  • Focused on learning & sharing to enable other areas of the org
  • Providing value to the user as quickly as possible
  • Putting users’ opinions over your own
  • Using data to make decisions whenever possible
  • Experimentation before deep investment
  • Bias for simple & actionable solutions at the expense of complex but more accurate solutions

Bring it all together into your growth strategy doc

Below I’ve included what I typically include in my strategy doc along with a few ideas on how to refine your perspective for other members of leadership.

The goal here is to summarize for “non-growth folks” on the leadership team. So lean towards clarity and conciseness over accuracy when in doubt.

Here’s what to include:

The mission and vision for growth in your organization:

Writing a clear and concise mission and vision for growth in your organization is a critical step. This will help the rest of your leadership team understand what growth will be focused on, and what you’re working towards.

Your mission describes what you want to do now.

Use your answers from the first section to summarize the areas of the funnel you’d like to focus on and themes of initiatives you believe would be most impactful.

Your vision outlines what the future looks like.

In step one, you brainstormed what the business looks like if you are successful — that is your vision of the future. See if you can refine the story further for a “non-growth” audience. That’s your goal.

Key operating principles:

This is where you can communicate to other members of your company how the growth team will approach the work.

Strategic direction for growth in your organization

This is where you can to include a high-level summary of what you’ll be focused on, why you’re focused on that, and what you’ll need to be successful.

Some specifics to include from your brainstorm:

  • The area(s) of the funnel you’ll be focused on — and why
  • The highest-impact initiatives you brainstormed, in order of priority
  • What happens if they are successful (your goals and milestones)
  • The resources you’ll need to be successful, and how you’ll be allocating them between the initiatives above
  • Any potential threats to your plan (resources, market conditions, etc)

A three month roadmap of growth initiatives:

You’ve listed the high-level initiatives you’ll be focused on above. Now go a layer or two deeper by listing out the first three months of work and the details involved in those projects. Keep this high-level but include the milestones you’re already defined during step one so your leadership team can understand the important checkpoints.

Resources you’ll need to be successful

List out the resources you’ll need to acquire accomplish your high-level plan. This might include:

  • People: engineers, designers, marketers, etc
  • Tools: for help with data analysis, project management, a/b testing, or other projects
  • Dollars: to help with outsourcing, implementation, or any of the above

Hypotheses on longer-term growth programs

Members of the leadership team are often curious about what you’re thinking ahead to. So this is where you can list out the longer-term areas that you’ll investigate.

With all of the information above, you’ll have a great “home base” for everything related to growth at your company.

Now comes the scary part. Share your document with other members of the leadership team to align.

Creating and communicating a strategy for the first time is a scary thing. You’re documenting all of your thoughts and then sharing with other really smart people for feedback. It’s a vulnerable experience.

However, this is a critical milestone along the way to success. Remind yourself that your goal is to align, get input, and then revise your plan based on the feedback. Not to be perfect.

Originally published at https://deliveringvalue.co on June 23, 2020.

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How to define a strategy for your growth team. A step-by-step guide for new leaders at startups was originally published in Growth Hackers on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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