Growth Office Politics or How Growth Teams Piss Off Everyone in Your Company

This is a part of a series of posts written with my friend Greg Klausner who is currently Head of Growth at Juni Learning. The series is aimed at helping anyone who is considering adding a growth function within their organization.

Turf Battles Between Product and Growth

Because Growth teams sit in the ambiguous center of product and marketing, turf battles abound. As Peter Thiel writes in Zero to One:

Most fights inside a company happen when colleagues compete for the same responsibilities. Startups face an especially high risk of this since job roles are fluid at the early stages.

It is leadership’s challenge to divide responsibilities between Growth product managers and product managers. 

Product manager mandate:

Growth product manager mandate:

Turf Battles Between Marketing and Growth

Conflict between Growth and marketing, tend to be conflict between specific Growth projects and a founder’s vision or brand strategy.

In startup companies, founders often have extreme ideas about what their product should look like. You can probably imagine a founder wanting only two colors on their website: Green and White. If you’ve spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley, you can probably even imagine a founder wanting a website colored only with shades of green!

It’s easy to imagine the issue here: shades of green and white may not do an optimal job of driving attention to a “Buy Now!” button.

Technology companies can avoid conflict between marketing and growth by A) having a flexible brand and vision or B) having a brand or vision that is a wide enough umbrella to encompass a variety of growth projects.  

Technical Debt / Conflict with Engineers

Growth teams are incentivized to do rapid experimentation. This often takes the form of minor tweaks to products and pages: Growth changes a button from red to blue. Then they move a banner from the left to the right. These changes are possible only because of corresponding addition of code to a product’s code base. 

One possible problem is that Growth teams’ additions make a mess of existing code. Imagine Eric the Engineer writes some beautiful code organized like a Victorian landscape painting. Then Growth Greg comes along like Jackson Pollock and adds a splotch of code code here and another splotch there. The end result might be technical debt, illegible code, and a very angry Eric.

Non-Growth engineering teams can even become explicitly hostile toward Growth: “Keep off my lawn!”

Analytics Feasibility / Conflict with Analysts

Imagine that last week your metrics showed you a 15% decrease in revenue. The impulse of leadership will be to have an analytics expert to crunch some user numbers to try to figure out what broke. But what happens a week later if they still haven’t found out what happened? 

Growth Leader: Hi Analyst, Crunch these numbers!

One week later.

Analyst: I crunched them and didn’t find an answer.

Growth Leader: OK, keep crunching.

One month later.

Analyst: I crunched them some more. Still no answer.

Growth Leader: KEEP CRUNCHING!!!!

Meanwhile, the analyst is spending most of his time looking for new jobs on Linkedin. 

The issue here is that metrics “tease.” Because you can see data so clearly, there is often the appearance of a coherent problem. But the reality underneath the data is a complicated bucket of undiscovered problems. The analyst may not be looking in the right place.

This can be avoided by thinking hard about the best use of analysts’ time. If after a week they still haven’t found the answer, disregard the sunk cost and find a new project for them.

Past Returns and Future Projections / Conflict with Leadership

Imagine that you are an executive at Company A and you see the following table:

Fiscal Year201620172018
Sales Team (Budget)1,000,00010,000,000?
Sales Team (Revenue)10,000,000100,000,000
Growth Team (Budget)1,000,00010,000,000?
Growth Team (Revenue)10,000,000500,000,000

It is your job to figure out the budget for Sales and Growth in 2018. A reasonable conclusion from this data is that you should increase the budget for Growth in 2018 to $100,000,000. After all, look at how increasing the Growth budget 10x in 2017 led to a 50x increase in revenue!

The problem with that conclusion is that Growth projects yield asymmetric returns.

Growth teams are more like prospectors mining a finite plot of land for gold. It could be that in FY 2017, the growth team struck the only gold that existed in that plot of land. That means that there is no gold left to be mined in FY 2018. Any investment in growth projects will be for naught.

Increasing the sales team budget means hiring more people to solve the SAME problem over and over in different places. Increasing the growth budget means hiring more people to look for NEW problems to solve. But what if there aren’t any?

How Leaders Define Reality for Organizations

“The role of the leader is to define reality and give hope.”––Napoleon

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”––Max Depree

I gave a presentation a few days ago to someone who may join our team.

My presentation included organization KPIs, a SWOT analysis, a “map” of industry competitors, an org chart, a description of changes underway, some company values, our company logo and brand, and a few ways that this guy could fit into the organization.

Given the scope of the presentation, choosing a title was tricky. It seemed like I was covering Organizational Everything. So I simply titled it “Organization Name, September 2020.”

Later I realized that the title should have been “Reality for Organization Name, September 2020.” Because the purpose of the presentation was to define reality for its audience.

I had heard the above quote from Max Depree a few months ago. I think I agreed with it because I mapped it to some famous examples of reality-benders:

Readers of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs remember his “Reality Distortion Field.”

A driving force in American politics is Donald Trump’s “Fake News.” (And what is the opposite of fake?)

But even agreeing with Depree’s quote, I didn’t understand the tools leaders used to define reality. Was it as simple as possessing Jobs-level charisma or repeating “fake news,” over and over again?

Before I list the tools, I want to introduce a 2×2 from Will McWhinney’s Paths of Change. This idea should help to explicate how the outlined tools take effect.

SAGE Books - Creating Paths of Change: Managing Issues and Resolving  Problems in Organizations

The 2×2 describes four archetypal realities. I’m not going to dive deep here. McWhiney offers that readers can locate their “reality” somewhere on this 2×2. Here is an imperfect shorthand for what each quadrant represents:

Unitary: Reality is set by divinity. (Theocrats.)

Sensory: Reality is set by the observed. (Engineers.)

Mythic: Reality is set by the self. (New-ageists.)

Social: Reality is set by us. (Socialist antagonists of Ayn Rand novels.)

If you’re reading this, you may have a sense of where you sit on the 2×2. And that’s part of the point of this segue: Each individual in an audience brings with him a different reality––a different point on the 2×2. The leader must bring each team member’s point together.

Tools for Reality Convergence

Now to circle back to my presentation and map its features onto McWhinney’s 2×2. The mapping is imperfect, but I’ve done my best.

1. Key Performance Indicators “KPIs” [Sensory/Social]

Every organization has a set of numbers that tell an at-a-glance story about how the business is doing relative to the past. This is as sensory as it gets.

That said, picking which numbers to include as organizational KPIs is a critical political metagame and an expression of the organization’s [Social] values.

2. Organizational Values [Social]

The leader says: “These are the things that are important to us.” The audience agrees or is disengaged.

3. Maps [Sensory]

Organizations use various maps to understand where they are in their competitive landscapes.

In the most obvious sense a map may show headquarters and satellite offices. A map could also display organizational capabilities relative to competitors’. A Wardley map could tell an organization “where” its technological development is.

I can also imagine an organization using a [Mythic] map: Imagine leadership describing an organization as a Hobbit that has finally arrived in Mordor.

4. Symbols [Mythic]

One organization I work with uses the Chinese character Wang to define reality. The literal translation of Wang is “king,” but the etymology of the character contains more nuance: In short, an effective Wang unites heaven and earth.

Another example of an effective symbol: A wall was the divisive symbol of the 2016 Trump campaign.

5. Stories and Metaphors [Mythic]

Images of Organization describes how organizations can be described as machines, brains, organisms, and more. Each metaphor carries its own capabilities and limitations. A leader can set reality by picking a beneficial metaphor.

6. Beliefs [Unitary]

One organization I work with has a statement of its beliefs. (Though statement “We believe” might be more [Social] than [Unitary].)

I’ve heard of a faith-based organization whose mission is to spread the love of Jesus. How’s that for a [Unitary] corporate belief?

7. Possibilities [???]

Finally we’ve arrived at Napoleon’s hope. I’m not really sure in which reality “Possibilities” belong. Perhaps in all of them.

The important thing is that if a leader has adequately defined reality, both leader and audience will recognize the same Possibilities.

This is one of the main benefits of defining reality: When team members recognize and value the same possibilities, conflict disappears. When this happens we sometimes say teams are aligned or that they share an organizational culture.

(It strikes me that “alignment” and “culture” are euphemisms. Heads might explode if corporate America began to speak in terms of alternate realities.)

Conclusion

The list above obviously isn’t comprehensive. In fact, you could argue that everything in every presentation ever made is aimed at “defining reality.”

But my hypothesis is that to effectively define reality, a leader should incorporate elements from as many of McWhinney’s realities as possible.

The presentation I gave the other day was really strong. I don’t think I recognized why it was strong. Today I see unifying ideas from the [Sensory], [Social], and [Mythic] realities.

Brazilian Jiujitsu: Human Chess or Human Go?

One Brazilian jiujitsu cliché is that it is “human chess.” This self-indulgent essay argues that Go is better than chess as an analog for BJJ. It is written for BJJ practitioners with some understanding of chess but limited or no exposure to Go. It will be tough to understand for a reader without knowledge of BJJ.

Disclaimer: I am about a ~1400 chess player, a ~13k Go player, and a BJJ blue belt. In other words: My knowledge of chess, go, and BJJ is imperfect.

Simple Rules, Enormous Complexity

The most famous Western quote about Go comes from Emanuel Lasker, an early chess world champion. Lasker said, “If there are sentient beings on other planets, then they play Go.”

Lasker was speaking to the elegant, organic rules of Go.

In chess, each piece has its own special function: The bishop moves in a diagonal, the knight in an L shape, etc. The rules of chess are complex.

Go rules, by contrast, are simple: Each stone is the same. Go forth and establish positional dominance.

BJJ rules are elegant and organic, similar to Go: Your pieces are your body. No striking. Go forth and establish positional dominance.

Part of the beauty of BJJ and Go is that despite their simple rules, competitions of each are spectacularly complex––even to an extent that makes them difficult to watch and impossible to understand for non-players! Simple rules engender enormous complexity; BJJ and Go are each their own Mandlebrot Set.

The Mandelbrot at a glance
Mandlebrot Set
The spectacular permutations of Garry Tonon’s body.

I might offer a corollary to Lasker’s claim: If there are gym rats on other planets, then they train BJJ.

Establish Positional Dominance (Don’t Just Capture the King)

I hinted above that the aim of BJJ and Go competitors are similar: Competitors in each aim to establish positional dominance. This is different from chess.

Consider John Danaher’s infamous four-step description of the traditional BJJ scoring system: Bring the opponent to the ground, pass his dangerous legs, pin your opponent, and finally submit him.

If a BJJ match ends without a submission, the fighter who established more positional dominance wins. Submissions themselves are positions of extreme dominance. Again: The goal of BJJ is to establish positional dominance.

In chess the connection between positional dominance and victory is dicier. To win, a player must capture the king. Consider the below image of a game ending in a stalemate even though one player enjoys an extremely dominant position:

HOW IS THIS A FUCKING STALEMATE?!!? - Imgur
Black to play: Stalemate.

To make BJJ more like chess, the scoring system would have to be made more one-dimensional: To win a match, a player would have to secure a rear-naked choke.

To make chess more like BJJ, on the other hand, points would have to be awarded for positional dominance. In other words: Chess would have to be made more like Go.

Go games are decided by positional dominance. In the below image, white has won the game by acquiring more territory.

White (me) wins in spectacular fashion

During the course of a Go game, one player might recognize that he is in a compromised position and cannot recover. In that case, he will resign (or submit to his opponent’s dominant position).

Black (me) resigns after realizing that all is lost.

Top and Bottom versus Influence and Territory

Absent from chess is the interplay between a “top player” and a “bottom player.” In BJJ top and bottom players have different scoring tactics available (pass guard versus sweep). To my knowledge, chess lacks a conceptual analog. Obviously “attacking and defending” in chess is not the same “top and bottom” in BJJ, which are each attacking positions.

Go, however, has the concepts of Influence and Territory. Consider the Go game below:

The image above is of a typical “corner fight” in Go. The black player is playing Territorial: He is attempting to claim the corner territory as his. Go players would actually describe white as “playing low,” “underneath,” or “below” white. Sound familiar?

For their part, the black stones have more Influence. Again, the white stones sit “above” or “on top of” the black ones. From his influential position, the white player can look to pressure and then capture the corner black stones, or he can seek to claim territory on other parts of the board.

As in BJJ, neither Influence nor Territory is paramount. During Go gameplay, players seek to strengthen the strategic advantages granted by their territorial and influential positions.

At higher levels of play, some players develop an influential style while others develop a territorial style. In these stylistic differences BJJ practitioners would recognize their own concept of “game.”

Making Life and the Guard Recovery

Let’s stay with this corner fight.

We can pretend for a minute that this corner fight is happening in a vacuum, and whoever wins the corner wins the game. White’s goal then, becomes to capture the black stones by surrounding them––without letting black “make life.” Here is how white might succeed:

White moves first: S1, T2, R1

For his part, black’s goal is to make life. If black makes life, his stones can no longer be captured. This is tough to describe without going into the rules of Go, but to make life black must have two spaces, or “eyes,” within his group of stones.

Here is one way that black could “make life” in the corner fight:

Black moves first: S1, T3, T2

Life-making is analogous to the guard recovery. Before making life, black has essentially “turtled” in the corner. White will apply pressure. If black makes life, he will be free to mount an attack on white’s position.

One way to improve your Go skill is to practice “life-making” puzzles called tsumego. BJJ practitioners might do guard passing drills.

Gambits and Leg Locks

In chess, gambits (sacrifices) are most often used in the opening of the game (see the famous Queen’s Gambit opening below) to establish broad positional advantage.

Queens Gambit - The Chess Website
Queen’s gambit opening

In Go, on the other hand, sacrifices are commonplace throughout the game. Sacrifices in Go aim to give up positional advantage in one location on the board in exchange for a broader positional advantage. You might consider sacrifices in Go the equivalent of “Fuck it, try a leg lock” in BJJ.

Check out this sequence in which black sacrifices a stone in exchange for a big gain in influence:

Popular corner sequence in which black has sacrificed his stones at Q3 and R3 in order to gain the outside influence on the bottom left side of the board.

There is a significant difference here: In BJJ, a player often sacrifices a dominant top position to try a leg lock. In Go, a player typically sacrifices a stone for broader positional dominance. The relationship between sacrifice and position appears to be “inverted” in BJJ and Go.

Cutting, Inversion, and Sweeps

Speaking of inversion, it’s time to introduce the concept of cutting in Go. The tactic of cutting is part of what makes Go dynamic. Here is an example of a cut by white, blocking black’s stones and threatening to attack:

By playing P6, black threatens white’s stones

The effective cut above acts like a timely inversion or a sweep. A player who has just had his stones “cut” can quickly find himself in a “bottom” position, desperate to make life. One of his groups is cut off from his other stones and threatened—as though his opponent has just inverted to attack an ankle.

Of course, cuts are not always effective, just as a BJJ competitor who inverts risks being sprawled on and smashed by his heavy opponent.

History, Language, and Proverbs

By now you’ve noticed some of the linguistic similarity of Go and BJJ.

Like jiujitsu, Go came to the West recently. It was introduced in the Americas by the Japanese in the early 20th century. Both Go and BJJ use copious Japanese terminology. High-ranking practitioners of each receive a dan ranking. (The highest ranked professional Go players are 9-dan).

Go is linguistically even more Asian than BJJ. English-speaking players use Japanese terms for positions, tactics, and more.

BJJ: Kimura, Ashi Garami, Kesa Gatame, and a litany of judo terms

Go: Sente, Gote, Aji, Hane, and much more

In some cases, the vocabulary of BJJ might actually be improved by more use of Japanese vocabulary.

One great example is the chess concept of “tempo,” which Keenan Cornelius popularized in BJJ. In Go, a Japanese term sente captures tempo. Go even has a useful bonus term gote, which is the move that responds the sente move: One grappler shoots a takedown [in sente]; his opponent sprawls [in gote].)

It’s also worth noting that many of the tactical and strategic proverbs related to Go can also be applied to BJJ.

“Urgent points before big points.” (See: Position before submission.)

“Use Go to make friends.” (From the Chinese Yi Qi Hui You)

“Give your opponent what he wants.”

A full list of Go proverbs can be found at Sensei’s Library.

Conclusion

This became a lengthy essay! I hope you enjoyed it. Let me just point readers to the great sport of chess boxing. I leave it to my readers to create its Go/BJJ analog!