Designing Your Own Life Event Kill Criteria

Creating a framework to know when to kill off bad ideas, decisions, partnerships and habits.

Last week I attended the Girls in Tech Conference at Bespoke and was anticipating the lunch break. My stomach was growling so my attention was waning, but my ears perked when I heard these words:

“Kill good ideas or projects to make room for truly great ones.”

Obi Felten, a director at X (Formerly Google X), argues that it is essential in her team’s work to solve problems that matter and highlights their approach to kill off good projects here.

“97% of Rapid Eval ideas get killed. Earlier this month we closed down a Foundry project, after the team came to the conclusion that it no longer made sense to pursue it. They wrote a detailed post-mortem explaining why, and presented it at the X All Hands meeting. Later this year, we hope to publish the findings in a peer-reviewed journal.”

Let’s recap.

1) Choose a direction and start executing.

2) Recognize when the project isn’t working and kill it.

3) Write why it didn’t work.

4) Shared the experience with everyone.

5) Give honorary failed project stickers as badges of honor and celebrate learnings.

This is the ideal framework for identifying things that aren’t working, accepting it, pivoting and moving on to better things.

Learning from Corporate Failure

Business schools charge thousands to teach the business case study lessons learned from companies including Kodak, Borders and Pam Am. It’s easy to identify where management went wrong with hindsight 20/20, but why couldn’t they see the signs?

In a 2003 Harvard Business Review article, Isabelle Royer explored why bad projects are so hard to kill, and she discovered, “too often managers charge ahead in the face of mounting evidence that success is pretty well unachievable.”

When looking back at product failures, people had a desire to believe in something, especially when heavily promoted by the project’s champion. People tend to collectively cheer on project champions and their ideas, even against warning signs. It feels good to be optimistic and work towards conquering an insurmountable task and problem as a team.

To prevent blind faith and pivot earlier, here is the model Isabelle Royer recommends.

1) Beware of cheerleading squads.

2) Establish an early warning system to evaluate a project or an idea.

3) Recognize the role of an exit champion that seeks out objective evidence to show that problems exist.

4) When collective belief exists, faith must be tested against data.

How to Design Your Own Life Event Kill Criteria

All of the frameworks above are essential in building our own life event kill criteria. We need to identify when we need to change directions and alter our journey.

Here is Royer’s model applied at an individual level.

1) Your circle of influencers, friends and family, should not consist of only cheerleaders. While it feels good to have people say how great we are, it doesn’t support our need to execute a kill framework, which leads to point #2.

2) Find someone you trust who can evaluate all the data and give you honest, oftentimes critical feedback. We all need people to call our B.S. and challenge our decisions.

3) Have a framework to evaluate your own personal decisions: jobs, relationships, health, self-care, family, etc. We could all save ourselves months and often years of pain, if we listened to the warning signs and ended unhealthy behavior and partnerships. As Obi says, it really is okay for these things to end for greater things to occur.

4) Post-mortem of project failure: When you are in the middle of paying the consequences from your prolonged indecision, evaluate. What were the signs? Why did you ignore them? What could you have done differently?

Change@work founder, Avery Roth, shares a time when she used her own life event kill criteria to alter her path.

“When interviewing with innovation consulting firms, I would get through the first staging gate, move through the process step by step, and then fall at the last interview.
At first I used these data points to corroborate the fact that I was on the right track — after all, I was being called in for seemingly endless numbers of interviews. But at a certain point, it occurred to me that there was a reason I was not getting through to the offer stage. (Step #3)
I created some hypotheses for why I wasn’t moving forward and tested them by asking for direct feedback from interviewers. (Step #2)
After collecting a few data points in this manner, I suddenly saw the theme: I was capable of doing the strategy work and getting to strong answers, but because linear thinking wasn’t my leading strength, my candidacy didn’t shine. Suddenly, I realized it was far more sensible to commit my mental and emotional resources to creating a career that would fit better with my EQ strengths.
My decision to stop pursuing consulting was a relief even though the outcome was not what I expected. I celebrated the insight, shut down my consulting path, and pursued a direction that would bring me more fulfillment than I could have imagined. (Step #4)”

It was Alexander Graham Bell who said, “When one door closes another door opens, but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.” We can be the ones to close our own doors and open new ones by using our own personal kill criteria.

More reading: Neil Amato’s Importance of Killing Projects, John Cook’s Peter Drucker and Abandoning Projects, Johanna Rothman’s Abandoning vs. Killing Projects, Jenny Blake’s When to Make a Career Pivot, Kermit Pattison’s How to Kill an Idea, Jeff Schmidt’s 10 Ways to Kill a Bad Idea, Verne Kopytoff’s Here’s How to Kill a Product Gracefully, Derek Rydall’s When to Stay Course, When to Change Directions, Tor Refsland’s Changing Directions: 6 Tips to Help You Do What’s Right for You

Special thanks to Obi Felten, Isabelle Royer, Avery Roth and Girls in Tech SF for the inspiration.