Setting Kill Metrics from the Start.

Killing a venture to save a venture team.

27th Feb 2020

What are kill metrics?

Ventures are inherently different from general production work. The most obvious of these differences is that ventures seek to either solve new problems that emerge from changing user or business needs or work to improve existing problems through changing technological opportunities. Either way, there are no guarantees in this work, only theories driven by experience, vision, and optimism that improvements can be made on the status quo.

While it's essential to think optimistically and persistently, ventures also require a healthy, pragmatic, and equally visionary skepticism that the project might fail. By imagining these scenarios at the start of a venture, the team can agree on appropriate metrics for terminating a venture and learning fast.

Why set kill metrics?

Setting kill metrics at the beginning of a venture avoids bias in deciding to terminate a project midway (or, painfully, steps from the finish line). It is human nature that once a team has begun creating, they want to protect their creation at all costs. Without an agreed-upon kill metric from the start, an idea or solution that should have been shelved might remain in production, wasting time and money. Kathy Hannun, CEO at Dandelion, a Google X incubated startup, believes that the best opportunity to set these metrics is at the beginning of a project.

You haven't invested a ton of capital, and there isn't a big emotional investment to cloud your judgment. These criteria essentially help you fight human nature.

- Kathy Hannun, CEO at Dandelion @ Google X

What's worse is that without agreed kill metrics, these ideas are only put to rest when someone from outside the venture group steps in to moderate. Whether a client, an investor, or a direct superior in the company, it's a bad result for everyone: the venture group feels slighted by this outsider coming in to kill their project, and the outside moderator loses trust in the venture team not to waste time and money.

When to kill a venture?

Deciding what appropriate kill metrics are can vary from venture to venture with the same diversity as the projects themselves. However, there are several points to consider when designing where to pull the plug:

  • Focus on the hard stuff first: Good project management allows kill metrics to be met early before the bulk of the time and money have been spent.
  • Agree on the kill metric as a group: Even a single team member not on board with the later decision to terminate can have lasting consequences for team cohesion and future projects. Conversely, terminating a venture together unanimously often brings a team together in memorial of a challenge faced together.
  • Start with clear goals: Define the bite-sized steps needed to reach them because, without clear goals, it's difficult to measure progress and even more challenging to know when you have failed.
  • Be disciplined and act fast: Kill ventures that are not succeeding per agreed metrics, but also know how to double down equally fast on successes.

After killing a venture?

After terminating a venture, the team should immediately shift into a post-mortem phase where learnings can be elaborated upon and shared both internally and externally. Google X asks staff to write these post-mortems and present them at the next company all-hands, not to shame or ridicule the premature end of a venture, but to celebrate the lessons learned. It also rewards team members who worked effectively on these failed projects, including financial bonuses for having tried and failed. These accolades signal to other staff that they should not shy away from bold risks.