Growth is a grid search to find the right combination of creative and messaging that resonate with your target audience. Think of it like playing the board game BATTLESHIP. You're trying to sink your opponents ship, but you can't see where they are. You only see what squares on the grid you've fired at previously, and if they hit or missed. You don’t know where the ships are placed, or why they were placed there. They could be all lined up along one edge of the board, or randomly distributed across the grid. Some ships are bigger than others: from the lowly patrol boat which takes two hits to sink, to the carriers which take five adjacent squares. Players take turns calling shots at the other players ships, with the objective of sinking their entire fleet.
In business you can imagine a similar grid, but each square is a potential messaging and creative combination. Some of those combinations are attractive to consumers, and if you hit them, you make money. When you find a winning combination there will be adjacent combinations that also work. Eventually that ‘ship’ sinks (what we call ‘creative fatigue’, where an audience gets tired of seeing the same thing over and over), and you have to continue your grid search for the next one. There are many ways to play this game, multiple ways to be successful. Some try to guess where the ships might have been placed and make their shots accordingly. That’s what a founder is doing when they come up with a strategy for a new business idea: guessing where they might hit a ship. Others just start firing and see what they hit.
Most companies land on their initial winning combo by intuition and luck. Attempting data-driven decision making in this stage is actually a mistake, because there’s no reliable ‘data’ on what ships are where until you start taking shots. Data is good for telling you if you did something right, not telling you what’s right to do in the first place. There is of course data to consider before you make your first move – the equivalent of rumours of where ships have been spotted – but there’s more noise than signal, and you’ll suffer from analysis paralysis in trying to rely too heavily on data in this stage of your decision-making. No amount of staring at the board will reveal its secrets. Just start firing until you hit something. Once you find something that works, cluster your guesses in that area until there’s nothing left to hit. The biggest mistake you can make is hitting a ship, then getting distracted before you fully sink it.
As you scale, the game changes. What got you here, won’t get you there. If your past guesses weren’t documented, the organization forgets what worked (or didn’t). People leave and take their knowledge with them, and suddenly you’re playing blind. Without a consistent testing and documentation process, you could still keep guessing right, but how many times do you really expect to get lucky? Eventually winning tactics get accidentally abandoned, and failed experiments are unknowingly repeated. If early ‘insights’ were the result of intuitive guesses, not statistically validated through experimentation, some misses will get miscategorized at hits (Type I error), and some hits as misses (Type II error). If there’s no systematic process in your organization for exploring the grid, you have to get lucky again and again as the board expands.
In this game the pieces move! Complicating things further is the fact that culture, technology, and preferences change. It’s like playing Battleship where the ships can move. In that case it becomes even more important to double down on sinking a ship when you hit it, because it might not be in the same place for long. That requires a mechanism for really proving to the whole organization that a win really is a win, otherwise they’ll be too slow to throw resources at expanding on it. It also means that you need to find a way to update your knowledge of what worked in the past. Things that used to be misses, now might be hits if you re-test them, and vice-versa. To do this you must democratise access to data, and take any questions bubbling up through the organization seriously regardless of source. The worst thing you can do is ignore the intern who asks a dumb question: the board might have changed, and it’s usually those who have less cultural baggage within the organization that see it first. Experiments show if you spray monkeys with water when they reach for bananas, they’ll restrain new monkeys that join the group. Even when the original group is replaced, still nobody goes for the bananas, yet no individual monkey knows why. “That’s just the way we do things here.”