To Grow a Company, You Need to be Good at Killing Things

The hardest thing to do at a company is to kill things

Homer Companies are all about building things, not destroying them. When your company is growing, you add lots of things to build the company: employees, investors, products, features, meetings, benefits, processes, reports, code, and more. 

While it does not come natural for a company (or any organization) to toss things out, every so often you need to look at everything and focus on getting rid of things that are no longer needed, important, or helping the company grow.

Timing is also important.  Recognizing and throwing out things is hard enough, but doing so early truly difficult. The biggest flaw of most CEOs (including myself) is that they don’t kill things fast enough (or ever). 

Maybe every company over a certain size should have a CKO – a Chief Killing Officer.   That person’s entire job would be to look at everything the company does and try to kill it. 

Being able to kill things early is essential to the long-term growth and success of any company. But recognizing that you should be searching for things to kill is the first step to building a better company. 

Wake

Long-term benefits of killing things quickly

•    Save time and money – Getting rid of something early enough can save a company countless hours of headaches and resources. This is especially important for startups that have both time and financial constraints. It can also be the difference a between thriving company and a dead one.

•    Renewed clarity and focus – By continually re-visiting the various facets of your company, you will streamline not only resources, but also overall goals and strategies since it will force you to weigh the various pros and cons of what you do now and how to prioritize efforts moving forward.

LicensedToKell Going for the Kill
Here are some areas that every company should review and clean up regularly:

•    Products – A company can only do so many things well. For example, PayPal is great business that makes it safe for people to buy goods and services online.  But they initially developed and kept a Palm Pilot beaming application and supported it for many years, way past when they should have killed it.  This does not mean you shouldn’t start things – you can start lots of new things as long as you kill them.  Google recognized this when they killed Google Answers in 2006.

•    Features – Your products may have features once thought to be important, but are no longer necessary or demanded by customers.  Slay them.

•    Code – Software code is worth re-visiting because they can be optimized after their initial implementation. Also, not reviewing code regularly can cause setbacks and long debugging hours after a lot more code has been written on top. Rapleaf holds “Sweepleaf” days semi-monthly where engineers do nothing but cleaned up and streamline code.

•    People – Check-in on employees at set intervals to look out for bad hires or people that are not adding the value they once were. Doing so can help guide people back on track and save a lot of headache later on.  Never settle for “average” people.  As Reed Hastings is famous for saying: adequate performance deserves a nice severance package. 

•    Meetings – As companies grows, so does the number of internal meetings. Internal meetings are important for communication and to make decisions, but some are legacy meetings that were created for a particular past purpose but are no longer massively beneficial. Strive to kill these meetings. Only keep meetings that are very beneficial to all attendees. There is also attendance creep in meetings where non-essential people are often in attendance. Focus on keeping meetings short, on topic, and with as few people as possible.  

•    Reports – Sometimes the CEO or a board member asks for a report and it keeps getting produced for years after it is valuable. Work to kill these reports, even if they are automated. 

•    Investors — Even investors and board members should be on the chopping block. Some early-stage investors don’t add much value as your company grows.  Buy these investors out — many of them will be happy to give up their stock for a decent return. 

•    Processes – Many internal processes (like performance reviews) are really useful.  But many of these processes that once were important can later be burdensome.  Slay these processes before they kill your company. 

•    HR practices – A lot of HR practices are vestiges of the past or should have never been implemented in the first place.  Try to kill all non-essential HR policies and practices as these can be cancers which can turn your company from a fast moving start-up to a bureaucratic maze.  One of the first things to look at is all the forms a new employee has to fill out.   

You might be thinking “wow, we’re really in bad shape because we are really terrible at killing things.”  You’re not in as bad of shape as you think because very few companies are actually good at killing things.  So just by recognizing that this is important, you’ll have a leg up on many of your competitors.  

As your company grows, you’ll have more things – both big and small – that either weigh down growth or are not core to long-term success. The companies that work proactively to get rid of these issues and devote resources to the areas that matter are the ones that will be able to remain nimble, innovative, and win.

Special thanks to Michael Hsu for his thoughts and edits. 

If you like this post, please follow Auren on Twitter: http://twitter.com/auren

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45 thoughts on “To Grow a Company, You Need to be Good at Killing Things

  1. Michael A. Smith III

    Auren: thanks for the very valuable comments. I’ve sent this blog post to many people in my organization. We can all benefit more from killing things.

    Reply
  2. Dina

    Great piece, Auren. Especially in hyper growth periods, knowing where to focus your time and resources is the killer app (excuse the horrible pun) and the difference between being successful versus stretched.

    Reply
  3. SortiPreneur

    Killing Things at Startups

    My friend Auren has a good post on a very important responsibility for entrepreneurs: the expedient killing of stuff that is not bringing value. He summarizes the issue: Being able to kill things early is essential to the long-term growth…

    Reply
  4. Mike Root

    This is helpful at big companies too. But you have to have people in the trenches that are committed and empowered to kill.

    Reply
  5. Thomas

    As a strategy/COO type in a company, I agree with the idea that companies should institutionalize an ability to measure forward value of activities and stop that which does not measure up. However, the real rub in executing this type of strategy is how to do this with grace. If one installs a CKO who is not the CEO (or well-protected by said), then the CKO will become a very unpopular person indeed. Unfortunately, unpopularity breeds distrust and will result in the CKO being frozen out of valuable information pipelines that pass pieces of information that are critical to the Keep v. Kill decision. Additionally, everyone is hot on the “No Asshole” mantra right now and if someone even comes close to smelling like a posterior, they will be politically isolated as well.
    I think one thing the CKO can do to be successful (especially within large organizations where politics are a reality) is to help the business make these realizations on their own. Being a “delusional realizationist” (i.e. corporate therapist) can be a more graceful and politically palatable way to separate wheat and chaff. If you are blessed with a corporate environment where abrupt changes in business activities are accepted, you probably don’t need to worry about this. However, if your company is composed of people who have opinions, then make sure you are able to balance efficiency with long-term effectiveness.

    Reply
  6. Timothy

    There are many things people can do to have a more effective company. One thing they did at my company is require that people stand up for all meetings. Standing up for meetings makes them move faster, causes focus, and makes everyone mad if someone is late. I highly encourage trying to make as many meetings as possible “stand up” meetings.

    Reply
  7. Shahar Nechmad

    Totally agree.
    We (and when I say we I actually mean myself) were definitely bad at killing things.
    I think we are bad at killing things for two main reasons:
    – We tend to fall in love in what we build. When we put so much time and energy in building a certain product or feature, it is very hard for us to let it go.
    – In his book “Predictably Irrational” Dan Arieli shows that we tend to value more things we already own than things we want to have. I wonder if it affect also our judgment when we need to kill some of our products.
    One of the companies I really admire is Netflix. The main reason for that is the fact that just a couple of years after they basically changed (and almost killed) the video stores market, they were smart enough to understand that streaming is going to kill their own business. Instead of fighting against it, they simply started to put all their efforts and resources in building the service that will basically kill their original one.

    Reply
  8. Paul Clegg

    The best companies I’ve worked for have jettisoned baggage early and often… And the worst ones I’ve worked for never got rid of anything or anyone.

    Reply
  9. Mark Chang

    I love the idea of “Sweepleaf”. that’s a great innovation. making code clean so it can continually be updated is paramount.
    thanks Rapleaf! we will definitely start doing that my company.

    Reply
  10. SY

    Great piece of writing. Never looked at killing from this perspective, but what u wrote do make sense :-)! Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  11. Amy W.

    Great article! It is so hard to kill things, but so important to cull through distractions and focus on what matters most. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  12. Eric Herrenkohl

    Auren, to tie this helpful piece back to some of the material you have written on hiring and keeping A players . . . A-players are not afraid to kill unnecessary or superfluous things off. They are typically comfortable thinking about the goals and outcomes they want and then designing the right tools and systems to achieve those goals. The people who fight for outmoded products or process or people are those who find their meaning and value in preserving the status quo. Thanks for a good post. Eric Herrenkohl

    Reply
  13. Algard

    Auren, that’s a great list of examples! Can never do enough in those areas and everyone can use a reminder to not slide backwards in any of them.

    Reply
  14. matthewcookusa@gmail.com

    Mark Pincus / Zynga is living proof of this “fast kill” theory. I heard Mark speak at VatorSplash and he reinforced your ideas. Apparently, when introducing a new game they have to meet some very hard metrics. If the game does not meet those metrics – it’s dead. No matter how much time and money have been dedicated to that said game.

    Reply
  15. Rachel Sheinbein

    Michael Porter said that in strategy it’s just as important what you do NOT do as what you do do. (can’t find the exact quote) but always quote him since it is so important to ‘kill’ projects etc.

    Reply
  16. Danny Sullivan

    Good piece, Auren – the Areas Ripe for Killing list is particularly .
    One comment: the worst kinds of projects and/or features that don’t get killed are those that continue to use resources under the radar of your full operations. It’s the thing that a developer spends 1 hour a week supporting that, were it gone, would free them up to have had another week to develop something actually important over the course of the year. Most people just chalk it up to administrative time, it gets lost to the “other duties” pile, and it goes on and on until you have an effort like you’re talking about to knock it out.
    This is the most critical list to go after. The projects and/or features that are just out there, not causing harm but being being used w/o a touch of internal effort, are worth considering putting an end to for some of the reasons you mention, but are less pernicious to the future of the organization.

    Reply
  17. Sheridan Hitchens

    Nowhere is this more true than in the games industry – if you ask any exec there “do you kill enough games projects?” – the answer is always “no”.

    Reply
  18. Gary Cook

    Great article. Actually, even better is to do what pharma companies are trying to do in research. Try to find the “killer experiment” that makes it clear something should NOT be pursued. Businesses need to do the same thing.

    Reply
  19. Alex Rampell

    Agreed 110%. The problem for many startups is that until there is a highly scalable, repeatable process, you almost want to maintain several different things for option value. That’s what makes it so hard to kill. Once you have a repeatable process where adding inputs {A, B, C} predictably yield outputs {X, Y, Z} you would be foolish to do anything else.
    Groupon is a great example. They killed their initial business quickly once it became evident that adding more cities yielded millions in profit.
    I’m an investor/advisor/board member for many companies and I don’t have a good answer for this. You do need a little bit of “spaghetti on the wall” but you can only throw so much quality spaghetti. Nothing is worse than a test “designed to fail” due to half-assed design or execution.
    Sure. My view is you attack one problem that you have maximum control over and you often need a “friend of the family” (business partner, small group of customers who are your friends/family, etc) to perfect it.

    Reply
  20. Bill Reilly

    Was it Disraeli who was asked what it took to be a great leader and responded, “to be a great leader (he might have said prime minister) you must be a great butcher.” Nixon quoted it to explain that he tolerated Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Colson too long after Watergate.

    Reply
  21. Bow Rodgers

    Excellent article. As a slight tangent to your topic “To Grow a Company, You Need to be Good at Killing Things”, I have found that often the hardest thing for a CEO is to say NO to a good idea. Maybe not killing the idea but certainly taking it off the table. Whether it is a major unplanned product demonstration opportunity or a quick and promising enhancement to a product all with good justification, if the core strategy of your company is compromised (product development, burn rate, depleting team resources etc.) you are generally better off killing the immediacy of the idea and staying your strategic course.

    Reply
  22. Amalia H

    You’re so right about that. Killing is a necessary part of surviving but not just in the business world. For example, we all have a tenancy to keep on putting energy into those things we always did which might have made sense long time ago but now just weigh us down now. I don’t know much about cleaning codes but I do know about cleaning drawers, alas, I don’t do it!

    Reply
  23. Semira Rahemtulla

    In my last job (PM at Guidewire, an enterprise software co – I ran the product dev+PM team for our flagship product), the company grew from 100 to 500 people. I spent a lot of my time and brainspace trying to make sure that the new processes and meetings we put in place (of which there were a lot, since we were starting with very little and were growing fast) were useful and efficient – largely b/c I didn’t want to waste people’s time, but equally so b/c I learned the hard way how difficult it is to kill off a meeting or established process even once it looses its usefulness – or, worse, becomes a hindrance. Over and over it surprised me how much people do things a certain way just because it’s how they’ve always done it, rather than because it’s still the best way to do it. Incumbency and inertia are strong forces.

    Reply
  24. Fergus O'Daly

    The first job of a real CEO is “killing things” a company is like a garden…get rid of the weeds before you deal with the fertilizer that encourages growth, or, you just grow more devouring weeds.
    A person that decides to accept the title ‘CEO” and then thinks about a “killing officer’ to do the heavy lifting should get another job.
    Killing is the most important and difficult job a CEO has to do. Who would want any CEO that was not willing to be a killer of : close business associates who are also friends, suppliers who once served the company so well, old customers who take up more time than they are worth, sales people whose clients love them but, have not increased their contribution to the company for far too long… or, old Mrs. Murphy who can’t seem to spend as much time doing her job as complaining about her family problems .
    A company is a small child! It needs to be fed the best ”performance people ” so it can grow…not the most loved or most respected people…just the very best performers.
    A true CEO is a person willing to kill and kill constantly, otherwise, like so many unsuccessful CEO’s who are too soft hearted they should take another “C” position and hope that their new CEO does not decide to kill them.
    Doing the job CEO job honestly insists that all “true CEO’s” be somewhat heartless bosses but, beloved by their investors.

    Reply
  25. Stephen Pearce

    I love the concept of a CKO.
    In a recent presentation on the landscape of Jewish life to a group of 20
    rabbis from the largest congregations in N America, I spoke of
    institutions being stuck. I thought you might like to see a snippet from
    my comments because we are thinking along the same lines, only it is
    easier to do in the profit rather than the non-profit/prophet world:
    “If it is possible to offer up one broad criticism of the current
    structure of denominations, it would be what Victor Hugo called
    “gradualism”- evolutionary incremental changes that take forever to take
    effect, changes that take too long to respond to needs and assessments,
    leaving the so-called institutions of change behind the quantum leaps that make them increasingly irrelevant.”
    Thanks for introducing me to the concept of the CKO–I love it!

    Reply
  26. John Polter

    As a banker, I can say that we invented most of the products, reports and procedures that should be killed. Oh yes, useless and traditional meetings as well. I remember a fairly senior risk manager asking for a detailed report that took an entire department a month to create. When he received it he glowed with excitement at the great data compilation. Then he added, “this is a great report, I am just not sure who would be interested in it.” They continued that report for over a year. As you mentioned, that guy qualified for a nice severance package.

    Reply
  27. Kevin W. Grossman

    God, how true this is (when appropriate to grow the company, not stagnate it and eventually kill it). When it comes to the workforce, many companies don’t fire fast enough, and that drains resources, revenue and mojo-vation.

    Reply
  28. Robert Kaplan

    See quotes below from recent book by a Bain consultant:

    “In good times, companies expand their operations. They add product lines, expand into new geographic areas and customer segments, and even experiment with new business models. Then comes a downturn. The company can no longer do everything it once did, and the decisions about where to focus can be agonizing.
    [The company needs to perform] a thorough inside-out analysis: Where is the company generating the best results, measured by profitability and growth? Which product lines, which markets, which customers segments?
    Who are the customers that we love the most …?”
    Darrell Rigby, Bain & company, Inc. Winning in Turbulence (Harvard Business Publishing, 2009)

    This analysis, actually, is the role for activity-based costing to identify the products and customers that are losing lots of money. While eliminating unprofitable products and customers is not the first action to be taken, eventually this can be considered if efforts to improve processes, redesign products, or increase prices fails. So ABC provides an analytic discipline to highlight high-cost processes, products and customers for managers’ attention and action.

    Reply
  29. Joey Flores

    I think everyone agrees killing things is important but I think firing dead weight should be stressed as one of the most important types of killing good leaders should be ready and willing to do. Nothing brings down morale for a good team more than picking up slack for a poor performer. Yet, firing people, particularly friends or nice people, is one of the hardest things most managers will have to do and are most likely to avoid.
    I once had to fire a 5 year employee (and a super nice guy) who just hadn’t grown with the company. It was one of the worst moments of my life walking that guy out of the building, but walking back in I felt like a million bucks. I knew that I had made the right decision, that my whole team would benefit, that the company just saved itself a big salary, and that I was able to make the tough decisions that represent good leadership.
    If you can focus on those after-the-kill feelings before the killing happens, it makes it much easier to make those tough decisions.

    Reply
  30. Jennifer

    Good post! Leading at the edge means playing to win as an individual, as a team, and as an organization. Companies that create a leadership development culture excel because they become talent magnets by always providing people with opportunities to learn, grow, and build leadership competencies. Regardless of their professional and organizational roles, all top leaders must understand how leadership, culture, and operational effectiveness are closely intertwined to achieve outstanding results. Drawing on the latest studies of high performance leadership from the world of business, sports, education, hostage negotiation, music, theater, and personal achievement, we will translate this cutting-edge knowledge to the real world of leading especially in times of change and transformation. At the <a href=”http://link.imd.ch/rexqb“ target=”_blank”>IMD OWP 2010 you will learn what leaders in the top companies, who are known for their outstanding leadership cultures, do so successfully to continue leading at the edge.

    Reply
  31. Dick Wooden

    Your post reminds us of the importance of saying No. With the increasing fast pace and the accessibility to information we have to not always say YES but also need to clearly define what we say NO to. So besides having a list of TO do actions, I find it helpful to have a list of Stop Doing items. Also it helps to say Yes, a little more slowly.
    Likewise a successful business needs to review what is working and what is not working. Some of the not working strategies, projects, initiatives need to be eliminated. The status Quo needs to be reviewed from various business perspectives.
    The adage of “Hire slowly and fire quickly” also applies to your article.
    Their is a positive correlation between clearing out these things to eliminate and allowing more room for the more important things to focus upon… We only have a set amount of time but we can choose what we do with the time.
    I’m off to start to eliminate some items from the areas you mention.
    Thanks

    Reply
  32. Juicy Couture Bikini

    I studied business in college for three years, and in my final year I had two options: Either go to university or start my own company. I thought I would go for a more risky option and I started my own company. I developed the site whileasdf working part-time to pay for the costs, and it launched last June.

    Reply

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