How to Build and Manage a Growth Team
While we may, at times, get caught up in shiny tactics, new technologies, and fleeting trends, what’s constant is that excellent teams are excellent teams.
It’s no different with growth.
In fact, investing your time into building an amazing growth team (and with it, a robust and high-output process) is the smartest thing you can do.
There’s some variability and differing of opinions as to the specifics of how to build out a growth team, but the generalities are largely the same. In fact, we see repeating patterns in most of the high-performing teams and organizations today.
Let’s dive into some of the tried and true practices for building growth teams and processes.
Who’s on your growth team? Why?
Before we talk about what roles should make up a growth team, let’s talk about how a growth team can (and should) fit into an organization.
There are generally two models:
An Independent growth team reports to the CEO and operates independent from any product or function. They act as a special growth agency within the company.
Another way of saying this is that the Independent model is a centralized structure, whereas the Function-Led model is decentralized. This delineation is used to describe many types of teams and how they fit into an organization plan, including conversion optimization teams.
So, if in the Independent model the head of growth reports to the CEO or someone in the C Suite, the head of growth may report to the VP of Product in the Function Led model.
What’s better? It depends. On one hand, the centralized/independent model allows you closer access to the C-Suite and therefore faster decisions and probably more resources.
On the other hand, a functional model creates synergy and a shared mission between growth and product, which is crucial to make impactful changes and discoveries.
I’m not sure if there’s really a right answer, as there are solid examples of companies that use either—Uber and Facebook use the centralized model, and LinkedIn, Twitter, and HubSpot use the decentralized. It’s going to depend on your company, how you operate, and how you can align resources to create a growth team that is able to produce value and push things through.
Now: who to hire? What does a growth team even look like?
Again, this may depend on your particular company and culture. Your growth team might even shape shift over time as priorities and projects change (or as your budget grows). However, there are some common figures on a growth team (as outlined in Hacking Growth by Sean Ellis and Morgan Brown)
- Growth Lead
- Product Manager
- Software Engineer
- Marketing Specialist
- Data Analyst
- Product Designer
Let’s cover each of these roles and responsibilities.
This is the person that leads the charge for growth in an organization. They may go by different titles (Head of Growth, Growth PM, Growth Director), but their job is the same: lead growth efforts.
This person is a manager and a leader. They set the OKRs, the experimentation tempo, and the area of focus. They take a strategic approach to growth, but they also get their hands dirty from time to time in running experiments and helping people set up experiments. Finally, they run the weekly growth meeting and keep a high level view of the overall program performance.
Essentially, they’re the team lead and are responsible for the KPIs and metrics defined by the company.
There’s a strong overlap with marketing and product, so it helps to have a product manager on the team to break down silos, whip up the resources necessary to push through experiments, and maintain a healthy balance of core product user experience and discovery/experimentation.
It’s a super important role. As Ben Horowitz said:
Don’t leave engineers out of the growth team. Ideally, you should be stacked with technical talent so you don’t have to split resources with those building product features, as it’s inherently different engineering work (it takes a select breed to be okay with writing “throwaway code” all the time).
The limiting resource on a growth team is always development resources. That’s why it’s so important to embed engineering talent directly in your growth team.
As growth is often described as the overlap between product and marketing, it’s obviously helpful to have a marketer on the team. Usually, though, this marketer is going to have a channel focus, or at least a penchant for channel experimentation.
This position is dependent on the company and its growth channels. If your company is content focused, you’ll probably hire marketers with content expertise. SEO-focused? Hire the best SEO specialists for your growth team.
With all the data sitting around at the average company, of course it makes sense to have a data analyst focused on growth (especially considering the rapid experimentation pace of growth teams).
Analysts, much like engineers, are in short supply and are often the bottleneck when it comes to the speed of a growth program. You’ll have to act with what you can, and in a growing organization that often means sharing analytics talent with other departments or bringing in an analyst for specific work. Make sure you have data resources available for your growth team. It’s worth fighting for.
You need someone to design the actual experiences you’ll be testing. This person will also (hopefully) have insights and expertise with user experience, psychology, and content strategy. If that’s the case, having this person on your team will not only eliminate a massive bottleneck (design is like analytics and engineering in that regard), but you’ll get wonderful, user-centric testing ideas.
There are many resources on how to build and hire a growth team. Sometimes opinions differ, but the generalities of building a growth team are the same: it should be cross-functional and filled with sharp individuals that embody the growth-mindset. Typically, growth teams start with more generalists who can work across disciplines, and as the team grows more specialists come on (even if it’s just for a short stint or one-off project).
It’ll take a bit of work to get your team dynamic down right, but it’s the most important thing you can focus on. Here are some more resources to look into:
- How to Build a High Performing Growth Team
- Starting a Growth Team from Scratch
- Building a Growth Team from Zero to Fifty
- How to Build a Growth Team
Growth meetings and process
Your growth team structure is set and your team is built up. Now let’s talk about the experimentation process, from a team management perspective.
Growth teams are predicated on a version of agile, which emphasizes quick iteration, learning, transparency, and cross-functional teamwork. This is usually exhibited by a hierarchy of goals—at the largest level, we have quarterly OKRs, but a growth team breaks things down to a key objective, and from there, into test cycles and sprints.
In essence, a growth process (according to Brian Balfour) has three features. It should be…
The process itself is subject to some variability depending how your organization operates. The important thing is really just that you have a robust process and that you continue to tweak and optimize your process to increase the output.
One of my favorite quotes on the topic comes from Morgan Brown in his CXL Live 2016 talk:
The focus on tactics and silver bullet growth hacks has ruined the perception of growth. It’s no wonder when you see articles come out every day outlining “99 Growth Hacks That Work Every Time.” When you see something like this, know that it’s bullshit and the writer doesn’t understand growth.
The problem with focusing on tactics is that tactics change. They don’t work on every company. Channels and the structure of growth channels are constantly shifting…
Moreover, it’s about setting yourself up for continuous and compounding gains over time (not aiming for a silver bullet tactic). As I mentioned in a previous article on the business case for growth experiments, the compounding value of incremental wins is what really produces ROI over time. The big wins are nice, but small wins add up.
Sean Ellis talks about this in his post on high tempo testing. Their growth had stagnated, but when they returned the focus to their inputs (the number of tests and quality of test execution), growth spiked.
Brian Balfour talks about this outlook on growth as well. Too many people are obsessed with an impressive growth curve and the one or two tactics that appear to have brought that growth curve on. Intead, we should focus on the robustness and efficiency of the process itself…
“It’s a feedback loop. The growth process is designed to be a positive feedback loop, to find small wins and optimizations across the business and then compound those over time as fast as possible.”
Without going too deeply into the specifics of a growth process, it’s worth noting that, while there are differences in models, most experts agree on the generalities of the process. It’s something like this:
Analysis → Ideation → Prioritization → Experimentation → Analysis
The essential framework is based on the Build → Measure → Learn framework popularized by The Lean Startup…
Take a look at some other models to see what I mean. Here’s one from Ryan Gum:
And here’s another from Brian Balfour:
Finally, this one comes from Morgan Brown:
And, just to drive the point home, here’s a conversion optimization process created by RedEye:
Can you spot the similarities? The differences lie at the margins, and for getting started, don’t matter as much. Adopt one of the broader frameworks showcased above, or read these resources to get some more insight on growth processes:
- The First Step To Building A Growth Machine
- Growth Hacking = People + Process
- 7 Principles To Mastering Growth Marketing
- High Tempo Testing Revives GrowthHackers.com
- How to implement Growth Marketing Process
- The Growth Marketing Process: How to Shake Your Growth Hack Addiction
Holding together all of this planning and process, we have the ever important growth meeting.
This, again, is subject to individual preference with regard to a lot of factors: when you meet, how long the meeting is, who is there, and what you discuss. The important thing: meet regularly and have a meeting structure.
At CXL, we met every Monday to discuss the previous week as well as the upcoming week. We cover:
- How many experiments we ran the previous week
- How many experiments were scheduled but didn’t run
- Learnings from cooked experiments
- How we’re progressing towards our bigger, quarterly goals
- What experiments are being prepared and queued up to be launched next
We also discuss ideas that we want to add to our experiment roadmap. These are thought up in advanced and are not discussed ad hoc in the meeting. We score them via the ICE framework (more on prioritization in the next growth lesson) and discussed the viability of the test and when we should plan to run it.
Who’s involved in a growth marketing? Again, it depends, but usually you’ll want to have:
- Growth Lead (whatever title they go by)
- The core growth team
- A sponsor from the C-Suite (preferably the CEO)
- Executives who have a stake in the experiments (such as VP Product)
- Any cross-functional employees who may have been involved in current or future experiments (designers, developers, analysts, etc.)
If you have many people in the meeting, and especially many people with important titles, then you definitely need to make sure you’re not wasting time. This is not a brainstorming session. You’re here to maintain accountability for your weekly sprint goals as well as your alignment and progress with larger and more strategic OKRs. Are you hitting your test goals? Why not? What can you do to improve that?
What’s implementation look like in real life?
These frameworks are nice and simple—easy to understand, really. But you can imagine that the real world is a bit messier, and that’s true. Tests don’t get executed for whatever reason. Teams change and shift. Sometimes you can’t wrangle adequate resources. Sometimes you go on an experimentation dry spell, where everything comes up inconclusive.
A model’s usefulness is because of its simplicity. Fact is, no model is perfect, especially when it’s too complicated, nuanced, and specific to actually be implemented. Get started with these tried and true growth processes, and you can tweak it to your liking as you move along. The important part is to get moving.
Growth teams come in a few shapes and sizes, but they conform to one of two models: independent/centralized or function-led/decentralized.
The players that make up these teams can vary, but usually include a team lead, a PM, an analyst, a designer, an engineer, and a marketing specialist. Your team will have more or less of any of those positions depending on how your team grows and what resources you need. You may also have other positions such as data scientists and UX researchers on your team if applicable.
Most growth teams have overarching goals, most often planned quarterly. These then break down into key objectives such as increasing onboarding activation, and these break down into smaller testing roadmaps. The key is to continuously learn and inform future tests with your current learnings and knowledge base.
The goal is always sustainable growth, but you can reach it through different team structures and even growth processes.