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Companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, General Electric (GE) and HubSpot have famously harnessed a culture of experimentation and continual testing to drive growth in their organisations.
But what exactly is a culture of experimentation, and how does it differ from the performance culture of many organisations today?
What is culture?
Let’s start by understanding what we mean by culture. Whilst definitions vary, they generally all centre around:
- Shared beliefs and values
- Shared behaviours and group norms
These elements determine how people interact and make decisions.
“The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterises an institution or organisation”Marriam Webster Dictionary
Culture and strategy
Culture and strategy can both be used to increase organisational effectiveness but are rarely seen as interrelated, perhaps due to their differences.
|Formal logic||Shared values and beliefs|
|Written plans and choices||Unspoken behaviours and group norms|
|Owned by the leader||A group phenomenon|
|Defined quarterly or yearly||Endures longer term|
|Explicit||Implicit and subliminal|
In most marketing organisations strategy dominates conversations around team performance however your growth marketing strategy is likely to fail, or at best be far less effective, without the right culture to support it.
Legendary management consultant Peter Drucker famously remarked that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, not to diminish the importance of strategy, but rather to shine a light on culture as a critical element to success.
A performance culture is one that focuses on high performance with regard to achieving specific business outcomes.
Characteristics of a typical performance culture include a focus on:
- Intellect, knowledge and expertise
- Business goals and outcomes
- Measurable targets
- Driven individuals
- Identifying winners and losers
Often these kinds of environments can result in controlling, high-pressure and intense environments where there is an aversion to conflict. They can be environments in which people hold onto age-old beliefs and outdated ways of doing things.
Performance cultures also result in self-protective behaviours such as being self centred, overconfident and focused on protecting and elevating individual reputations.
“Building a culture focused on performance may not be the best, healthiest, or most sustainable way to fuel results. Instead, it may be more effective to focus on creating a culture of growth.Tony Schwartz
Culture of experimentation
In a culture of experimentation (or growth culture) results still matter, but there is more focus on the softer elements of the organisational environment.
Characteristics of a typical culture of experimentation include a focus on:
- A safe environment that supports risk taking
- Treating failures as opportunities to learn and improve
- Focusing on development opportunities
- Providing continuous feedback up, down and across the organisation
- Challenging each other
- A shared commitment to helping each other grow and get better
Often these kinds of environments have a feeling of transparency, safety, trust and vulnerability that doesn’t exist in more controlled performance cultures. Leaders take responsibility for their shortcomings and regularly seek out others opinions and ideas to challenge the status quo and find new ways of doing things.
Alex Birkett, previously Growth Marketing Manager at HubSpot and now co-founder of Omniscient Digital, defines a culture of experimentation as:
A belief that there aren’t any sacred cows in terms of the way things are done or designed. An opinion, no matter how highly paid, is still an opinion – instead, an organisation makes data-informed decisions.
In a culture of experimentation, failure isn’t punished, insights and learning are rewarded, and team members are encouraged to innovate and discover new ways of growth.
Experimentation culture operating principles
Culture is often seen as somewhat intangible and difficult to describe hence we recommend most growth marketing teams define core operating principles instead.
Stripe, the hugely successful payments platform, take a similar approach with regard to “How Stripe works”:
Stripe’s operating principles guide how we interact with each other and our users, translating our values and beliefs into concrete actions. The principles articulated here detail the everyday behaviors we focus on, our core traits, and what we expect of our leaders—and all are rooted in the core expectation that Stripes operate with high integrity, maturity, and respect for others at all times.How Stripe works
Here are 10 rules and operating principles you may wish to adopt within your growth marketing team in order to be more effective at driving business results.
- Think small
- Move fast
- Avoid shiny objects
- Data over opinions
- Challenge the status quo
- Build process excellence
- Learnings beat outcomes
- Customers first
- Team transparency
- Autonomy and accountability
1 Think small
Start with small bets, get real-world feedback quickly, and double-down on successes. Great outcomes are often the result of endless iteration. Small wins can make a big difference, in life and in marketing, especially when they compound.
Optimise for fixed time rather than fixed scope activities. Try something, see if it works, then iterate on the effort until the result improves. Reduce risk and test cheaply by avoiding spending time on big plans, but rather use experiments to sense-check your thinking and adapt plans along the way.
2 Move fast
Prioritise velocity over perfection. Learnings and excellence are the result of action, data collection, and iteration. Establish a rhythm of experimentation, build momentum to keep the team moving forward in order to push through the failures and find the successes. Perfectionism sounds pleasant but is often just masking fear.
There is little correlation between the time spent on something and the impact and/or likelihood of success. Some of our smallest tests have resulted in the biggest gains. The faster we learn, the faster we win.
“Your goal isn’t to be pixel perfect. It’s to get started learning about your customers”André Morys, CEO, konversionsKRAFT
3 Avoid shiny objects
Avoid shiny objects where there isn’t clear business impact. Always focus on outcomes over outputs. Marketing should be a growth engine, not a cost centre.
4 Data over opinions
Gut-feel, subjectivity, intuition and the so-called HiPPO (highest-paid person’s opinion) still dominate decision making in most companies. Remove ego from decision making and instead aim to always validate with empirical evidence. Evidence-based decision making requires humility from everyone in the team to say “I don’t know, let’s test it”.
5 Challenge the status quo
Use experimentation as a tool to challenge the widely held assumptions, ways of working and organisational norms. Don’t accept “that’s the way it’s always been done”. Be bold in questioning conventions. Be irreverent of how things work today. Explore things. Take risks. Think outside the box. There is no such thing as a bad idea.
“No one knows what’s a good idea or a bad idea until you try it”Marc Randolph, Co-founder, Netflix
6 Build process excellence
Amateurs focus on tactics while professionals follow processes. Inexperienced growth teams focus on tactics and technology whereas winning growth teams are religious about process. Ensure rigorous processes for core growth processes (finding growth ideas, idea prioritisation, testing velocity, growth team meetings and more).
“Growth has nothing to do with tactics, and everything to do with process.”Brian Balfour, VP of Growth, Hubspot
7 Learnings beat outcomes
“What did we learn?” is far more powerful than “What did we do?”
Continuously optimise to learn more. Learning about your customers, users, products, services and core marketing acquisition channels will lead to better decisions.
We can’t always win, but we can always learn. Build a learning and insights focused mentality.
“I believe we’re the best place in the world to fail (we have plenty of practice!) and failure and invention are inseparable twins.”Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO
8 Customers first
Obsess over customer problems, customer needs and customer problems. Focus on activities that deliver value to customers first and foremost, rather than on activities that deliver value to your business.
The most successful companies put the customer at the centre of everything they do.
Share information about experiments, results and learnings with your team and stakeholders to drive healthy debates, get leadership buy-in, build political capital and company wide participation.
Provide a supportive environment, support and nurture colleagues that embrace imperfections and show vulnerability. Build a shared commitment to helping everyone on your team to grow and get better.
10 Autonomy and accountability
Growth marketing teams tend to provide a higher level of autonomy compared with more traditional marketing teams. Individuals tend to be able to decide what they wish to work on, as long as the activity is aligned with team goals. However, with autonomy comes accountability. Experiments will not always be successful but there is an expectation of adhering to the process and improvement over time.
Organisational culture is a complex and nuanced topic. A culture of experimentation (or growth culture) isn’t new, but is becoming more prominent as the adoption of practises around optimisation and experimentation increases in the workplace.
Whilst tactics and hacks may get superficial attention at the surface-level, the best growth marketing teams build world class cultures.
When I started in marketing, I was similarly obsessed with channels and tactics. After years of experience (and a lot of mistakes along the way), I’ve come to learn that marketing leaders need to spend less time obsessing over tactics, and instead turn a careful eye to developing a winning cultureJaleh Rezaei, CEO, Mutiny
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