Scaling Success with Growth Boards

May 5, 2019 Amy Herzog

Organizations launch digital transformation efforts for different reasons: They want to enable quick exploration of a new business area, have their product teams stay relevant in a fast-moving industry, or have energetic leaders that come from companies that work differently, etc. Whatever the motivation, companies typically start transformation efforts with a small lab or incubator effort—and those efforts are often extremely successful.

Ironically, one of the most common roadblocks to a successful large-scale digital transformation occurs only after this initial success—when the enterprise tries to scale it. While it’s possible to launch a global effort to remake the entire organization according to lean and agile principles, it’s also possible to scale the success of individual agile teams without a universal overhaul. Growth boards are a lightweight practice for scaling the engagement and lean governance necessary to allow broader agile efforts to thrive—while systematically managing uncertainty.

"The term growth board can refer both to the growth board members themselves - a group of leaders making decisions about work efforts - or to the meetings they run." 

Agile Teams Need Agile Governance

One key aspect of initial transformation efforts is that they’re typically championed by someone in senior leadership. That executive focus gives them three important advantages: They’re staffed with employees who are already excited about working in a new way, provided resources to accomplish a specific goal, and (importantly) separated and protected from most of the typical controls the organization has in place—often with one-time exceptions or other unrepeatable processes.

Scaling that transformation success requires that the organization build in repeatable ways to manage and interact with agile teams’ new ways of working. Typical approaches for scaling transformation include replicating/enlarging the incubators or labs, and/or moving “transformed” staff back to other groups and using them as viral force-multipliers. Either way, the scaling process often results in diminished direct leadership engagement and brings agile teams directly into the purview of traditional control and governance processes. Even when the organization’s mindset and culture are supportive of scaling, these governance processes can overwhelm the new ways of working and cause transformation to wither on the vine.

This is because agile teams need different things from their surrounding organization than traditional teams do. Instead of relying on the enterprise to know the right things to build, agile teams need the ability to learn what to build by failing fast. Instead of one-time customer interviews or a third-party market analysis, agile teams need a repeatable cycle of customer feedback from which they can learn. Instead of delivering to a fixed specification, agile teams need the ability to pivot or persevere as necessary to solve problems and deliver on business value.

The surrounding enterprise, however, has the same needs of agile teams that it has of traditional teams: Enterprise leadership needs to be able to plan for resource allocation and business return at a macro level. Practically, this means leadership needs the ability to control the cost, security risk, and maintenance of the software that individual teams deliver; it needs the ability to plan for staffing and other monetary outlays; it needs the ability to update investors and stakeholders throughout the year.

These enterprise needs aren’t inherently in conflict with lean/agile ways of working, even though it might seem that way at first. But, the ways the enterprise achieves those needs do need to adapt. Modern software teams think about their work in a different way, and that requires a different approach to governance.

Growth Boards Give Enterprises Agile Control—and Scale Engagement

In his 2017 book The Startup Way, Eric Ries discussed growth boards as a way for organizations to simulate startup incubators within an enterprise. According to Ries, these in-enterprise “VC firms” facilitate interactions between lean/agile teams and their surrounding environment. From the enterprise’s perspective, the growth board ensures that all teams have a single point of accountability that validates learnings and controls funding on a frequent, small basis (called ‘metered funding’). From the team’s perspective, the growth board runs interference with the rest of the organization and can provide assistance with organizational hurdles in addition to providing funding.

Growth Boards…

… are a cross-functional team focused on delivering business value.

… do use data to make transparent pivot-or-persevere decisions about approaches to delivering value.

… enable and encourage top-down and bottom-up collaboration on problems.

… are not a siloed management team focused on status updates.

.... do not give teams detailed requirements on solutions up front.

… don’t act as traditional top-down, command-and-control decision makers.


Most of Pivotal’s customers haven’t fully implemented all of the recommendations described in The Startup Way, particularly around innovation accounting. But even without sweeping organizational changes, growth boards offer a powerful tool for facilitating transformation at scale and can help organizations

  • Make cross-functional, data-driven decisions to drive business value;

  • Enable technical decisions to be made by the teams doing the work while preserving strategic alignment with business goals;

  • Ensure they’re succeeding (or failing) as quickly as possible, with the smallest possible amount of waste and risk.

As Pivotal teams have worked with our customers to refine and tailor growth board practices, three key factors for success have emerged:

  • The growth board should own a specific problem (or problem area) and understand how it aligns with top-level business objectives. For example, exploring opportunities in the “buy online, pick up in store” space as part of increasing sales by $30M for the fiscal year.

  • The board should be cross-functional, with all key stakeholders represented including leadership. For example, platform, information security, and accounting representation might be key for BOPIS concerns.  

  • The growth board uses hypotheses, data, and learnings to ensure effort is continuously supportive of, and focused on, the growth board’s business outcomes. For example, if quick initial feedback shows that most customers want to start the sales process online but complete in-store, efforts aimed at allowing mid-stream order handoff to in-store systems get prioritized over improving fully-online sales processes.

It’s likely that any enterprise will have multiple growth boards at multiple levels of the organization, focused on different business goals and operating for different lengths of time. For any individual growth board, the three practices above ensure that work within the board’s problem space fails or succeeds as quickly as possible, maximizing the organization’s learning while keeping leadership and employee engagement high. In this way, an enterprise can maintain control of multiple efforts without stifling autonomy.

Logistically, participating in a growth board requires leaders to think differently about their role. Rather than dictating solutions to the presenting teams, leaders present problems for the teams to solve, make decisions on general direction, and allow the teams to decide the specifics of how. Each leader on a growth board should commit to the following:

  • Work collaboratively with teams to drive outcomes based on data. They should strive for honest conversation, commit to transparency, and be prepared to learn and work with their fellow board members.

  • The board should meet regularly enough that timely decisions can be made, but not so often that progress won’t occur between meetings. This likely means at least quarterly, but not more than monthly, depending on the objective.

  • They must commit to attending in person rather than remotely or by sending representatives. This is crucial for maintaining engagement and focus.

Teams presenting to the growth board should also think differently about their role in the conversation. Growth board meetings are opportunities for collaborative decision-making based on data, and all interactions should support those goals. This means that while growth board members do need to understand how a team’s work fits into the broader enterprise picture and resources required, conversation must focus on the larger picture. The following information will be helpful:

  • A reminder of how the initiative aligns with enterprise objectives,

  • A summary of outcomes and key learnings since the last meeting. This informs decisions, so should include all/only information relevant to the objectives. Crucially, the summary should include learnings from failure as well as success.

  • Any changes to expected cost and timeline based on those outcomes and learnings.  

  • Finally, teams should be prepared with asks for the growth board—for example, the board may be able to provide input and context, decisions on funding or removing process roadblocks, etc.

Focusing growth board sessions on hypotheses, outcomes, learnings, and needs—instead of status updates—is key to success. This movement away from traditional reporting practices to collaborative problem solving is what allows an organization to both give teams freedom to solve problems autonomously, and provide leadership and key stakeholders control over the solution space.

One special note: In the context of building a cloud-native platform capability, we always recommend that someone from the enterprise’s platform organization sit on growth boards. Dedicated teams focused on providing a single shared, self-service platform to product teams is crucial to digital transformation success. Participating in growth boards gives the Platform organization a broad context of business objectives and team needs, and allows them to influence product direction and strategy. To continue with the BOPIS example from earlier, having Platform representation on the BOPIS board ensures that as soon as customer feedback about mid-stream order handoff is presented, the platform team understands those changing data requirements and can provide product teams with functionality and guidance.


Growth Boards and Cybersecurity: Accelerating Cross-functional Relationships  

I wrote about “getting a little agile” in enterprise security practices in a previous article, and growth boards are a perfect place to put that agility into practice.

Information Security and other control groups within an organization are important stakeholders in nearly every major decision a company makes, and have clear mandates to protect their enterprise from risk. This can lead to siloed, sometimes adversarial relationships between the conservative risk-reduction control groups and the experimental risk-exploring product development groups. The reality is that any enterprise needs to strike an intelligent balance between exploration and protection. Growth boards are an ideal place to forge a more collaborative relationship.

Including cyber security staff in the growth board process allows them to proactively identify and help address risks ahead of time, as well as including them directly in any decisions to tolerate risk. This results in a smoother path to production for new code, without damaging the enterprise’s risk decision process. Inclusion works at all of the different growth board levels of an organization:

  • The Chief Security Officer should sit on your organization’s executive-level growth board. When Line of Business leaders present new opportunities, they can identify systemic and/or market-based risks and work with the teams to mitigate them. This keeps the enterprise honest about potential costs, and paves the way for smoother interactions with the rest of the organization around success criteria.

  • At the line of business and portfolio levels, security leaders can provide more detailed inputs on issues like certification and accreditation requirements, or other security requirements necessary for success. These growth board members will understand how to build in security protections and guard rails from the ground up, and ensure the work gets done before final approval or deployment.   

  • At the product level, security-knowledgeable growth board members ensure that best practices are followed and the correct collection of tests and pipeline safeguards are applied to keep the enterprise secure. They can also help proactively identify signs of failure or attack, so that operational resiliency is baked in from the ground up.


Even for organizations who aren’t fully adopting lean/agile doctrine, growth boards provide an excellent venue for organizations to transform their internal security processes and relationships from siloed safety gates into collaborative forces for business value. And while cyber security is near and dear to my own heart, the same is true for other control groups within the organization as well.


Getting Started  

Wherever your organization is in their digital transformation journey, growth boards are a key part of scaling your transformation success beyond the incubator phase. They offer a lightweight way of preserving and enhancing leadership engagement, maximizing conversations, and ensuring decisions are transparent and fully grounded in customer data.

By requiring and facilitating cross-functional decision making, growth boards ensure the organization finds repeatable solutions to key enterprise needs that are aligned with broader business strategy. In order to provide enterprises with the ability to achieve “aligned autonomy”, growth boards should be:

  • Focused on a specific business goal or problem;

  • Cross-functional with all key stakeholders represented;

  • Rigorous in their use of hypotheses, data, and learnings to inform pivot-or-persevere decisions, and transparent about their process.

These practices allow your growth boards to be a collaborative force, helping the whole organization quickly generate value—while breaking down silos along the way.


About the Author

Amy Herzog

Amy Herzog is the Field CSO, Transformation at Pivotal.

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