Nail Your Growth Levers to Unlock ICE Scoring’s Full Potential

From 243 ideas to a structured approach to growth

This article was co-authored by BreakoutGrowth’s Ethan Garr and Daphne Tideman, a Growth Coach and Consultant.

Why do we end up without focus?

Have you ever looked at your backlog and thought, “Wow, there are so many ideas…but where do I start?”

We get it. Every idea offers that magical possibility of incremental improvement or even transformational growth. But, on the other hand, every idea also begs the question:

  • What is essential?
  • What should we focus on today?

Most startups struggle with a lack of focus, trying to do everything all at once. They often use growth prioritization frameworks like ICE and RICE to score and order priorities. Unfortunately, this doesn’t usually clear the chaos.

The problem is not that the frameworks are fundamentally flawed but that we ask them to solve the underlying problem of a lack of focus in our businesses. They were never designed to do this.

We have learned that adding another structural layer to your approach is essential to make these prioritization processes work.

When ICE Scoring is Not Enough

Sean Ellis’ ICE scoring methodology is a great tool for prioritizing ideas, but we see teams fail when they use this method too broadly and without a solid anchor point.

If you ICE score every idea in your backlog, you will likely have many ideas with precisely the same score. However, this doesn’t help solve your prioritization problem.

If you get past that issue by creating a more complex scoring system, you’ll still find you are comparing experiments across multiple levers. So if an acquisition idea gets a 7.7 ICE score and a retention idea receives a 7.3, can you effectively decide which one to focus on first?

Even if you can run multiple experiments in different business areas at the same time, should you? How can you learn and build upon previous experiments if you constantly switch contexts?

Would it not make more sense to figure out the most leveraged areas first and then build growth momentum before moving on to another less leveraged focus area?

Here is how to turn it around

We have made and learned from these mistakes, and here is what we now know to be true:

1. Companies win when they understand their growth engines and look for the business areas where sharp focus has the best chance of driving step-change improvement.

2. To get an organization’s growth culture engaged in an area of significant potential impact, it is important to identify and understand the KPIs that specifically accelerate the North Star Metric.

3. Ideas should be categorized by the business areas where they drive impact before being prioritized as experiments.

4. A framework for scoring and prioritizing tests is important, but which one you choose is less important than how you and your team use it to build momentum in experimentation.

Here is how to implement these learnings step by step.

Determining and using growth levers

Today, we will show you how to start categorizing those areas and how to use those categories (referred to as growth levers) to drive focus.

Step 1 — Start with your growth model

For teams struggling to find the right place to focus their efforts, diagramming how growth works in the business is often a good starting point.

What is a growth model?

A growth model shows how each lever in the business operates as part of a connected system to deliver value to end users. As users move through your product experience, they travel through funnels and loops. By visualizing each interaction within that journey, you can begin to surface where large opportunities to accelerate growth live.

Here is an example of a growth engine model that shows how funnels and loops work together to accelerate the North Star Metric:

Growth Engine Diagram by Sean Ellis and Ethan Garr from The Breakout Growth Podcast

Identifying impact areas effectively

Once you have a picture of how value is created as part of this connected system, you can start to discuss where you have the greatest potential to drive impact. For example, suppose your product solves a personal health issue nobody likes to discuss. In that case, focusing on referrals may not be as impactful as working on content development efforts that lead users to a free trial.

“You can’t improve what you don’t measure.” — Peter Drucker

It is also important to ensure that you can tie KPIs to each area of your model. If you believe that optimizing activation has step-change improvement potential, you will want to understand where activation is today and what the impact of improving it in the future can be.

Knowing, for example, that the average user ‘activates’ or first realizes value seven days after downloading would be very important if that is where you will focus efforts.

A good model helps you and your team take a holistic view of the challenges and opportunities that impact your North Star Metric.

Narrowing down your focus

Usually, by studying their growth model, teams can quickly identify a few areas of the business where focus is most likely to drive impact. Getting down to one is ideal, but if you are debating a few different areas, don’t worry. Step 2 will show you how to use quantitative measures to narrow your focus further.

Too many companies try to create 15 different focus areas and move the needle on all of them at the same time.

So, if your team can’t name in seconds the focus areas, then you have too many.

When everything is a priority, nothing is.

Step 2 — Work out the quantitative impact of improving that area

Once you have identified areas where you see high potential, you can put a bit of analysis to work to select the right one to focus on first. The KPIs we discussed earlier now become important inputs for assessing impact.

Calculating the impact

We don’t recommend using a prioritization framework like ICE or RICE here. While those tools are great for quickly assessing an experiment’s potential value using a hybrid qualitative and lightly quantitative measurement, they are less impactful when comparing growth levers.

Here you are deciding where to spend resources for an extended period (often a fiscal quarter or more), so it is important to build a quantitative picture of potential impact before committing to one objective or another.

It is not usually possible to calculate these exactly, but what is important is that your analysis is consistent. A good way to sanity-check this process is to have 2 or 3 team members independently calculate the expected impact to see if you are all on the same page.

Let’s consider an example: Suppose the growth team at Blinkist, the book summary app, is trying to accelerate a ‘Weekly Books Read’ North Star Metric, and after reviewing their growth engine, they align on activation and retention as their two highest-leveraged growth levers.

By estimating the impact the team would expect if all experimentation efforts for the next quarter were focused on either of these two levers, they can determine which focus area is likely to have a greater impact on their North Star Metric.

Step 3: Pick the key growth lever and source experiment ideas

Once you have done the hard work comparing your biggest opportunities to accelerate growth, you will know where your focus should be (and you have numbers to back it up).

Focus on the key growth levers

It is often difficult for teams to focus on just one objective at a time because they fear missing out on something else, but we highly recommend it, especially for smaller teams.

The more you spread out experimentation efforts, the harder it is to capitalize on learnings and build momentum into your flywheel.

A good way to reduce the anxiety of narrow focus is to articulate clearly the timeframe for the effort. Suppose everyone is bought into the idea that we will index specifically on improving referral loops over the next two months. In that case, they are less likely to worry that other areas, like retention, will never get proper attention.

Focusing on one area of growth doesn’t mean ignoring others. Instead, it just means committing testing resources to that area for a set period.

Set the timeframe so your team can run enough experiments to measure impact comfortably. A fiscal quarter or less is usually a good rule of thumb. Remember, you can always extend the effort if you are seeing good results or need a bit longer to reach your goal.

You need to have a clear measure of success for your growth lever;

in other words, when is it time to move on to the next lever?

Building your backlog

Once you settle on the growth lever and the timeframe, it is time to aggregate ideas from the team. We tend to think it is a good idea to let teammates individually brainstorm before jumping into a group session. Try to give everyone the space to research and ideate around the agreed-upon focus area independently.

If you struggle to get high-quality ideas, it is time to do more research.

Once you have ideas specifically focused on growth lever improvement over a fixed period, you can focus on prioritizing the concepts and building and launching experiments.

From there, you narrow it down to a few key focus points to organize your backlog.

Step 4: Prioritize Ideas and Execute

Now you are well positioned to drive impact. You diagrammed your growth engine, identified your best lever for accelerating growth, and challenged your team to develop ideas they believe will move the needle. This is where ICE scoring (or whatever framework you prefer) can help you turn chaos into order.

You will find that prioritizing experiments is much less daunting when you reduce your backlog to the core ideas related to the specific growth lever you’re working on. So take the time to ICE score these ideas as an independent set.

You should now have a solid picture of what your highest-leverage ideas to prioritize as experiments are for your next set of sprints. You can lead more focused growth meetings each week to analyze learnings and manage the testing pipeline. This is where it becomes super-important to build accountability into your process.

Who owns each growth lever?

We have given you a straightforward framework for narrowing the focus so that your prioritization methodology can work. However, driving impact on a growth lever requires relentless focus, so whether it is you, or someone else on your team, one person must own the growth lever you are trying to move.

If the goal is to improve the percentage of new users who reach the key activation moment by 12% in the next three months, the owner’s job is to measure and evangelize progress. They should define the success metrics and hold the team accountable.

By assigning one person the responsibility to drive the test/learn process, manage the metrics, and lead in the growth meetings, you will give your team the best opportunity to achieve your goals.

Your growth levers are the key focus points of your growth meeting and should determine what you do in your growth sprints.

Run the process, drive the progress

Using growth levers to focus efforts effectively is a learned skill. For most teams, it will take a few cycles before you build the discipline and habits to realize its full impact. But it works.

Focus makes the chaos of growth less daunting, improves your ability to move the North Star Metric, and helps each person on the team connect their work to a specific and valuable outcome.

Use this simple framework as your guide; over time, you will notice that your ICE Scoring efforts work better, your growth team works more efficiently, and your results become more consistent.

This article was co-authored by BreakoutGrowth’s Ethan Garr and Daphne Tideman, a Growth Coach and Consultant.