Kai Chang

The Cutdown

Like many pre-adolescent boys before the age when I discovered girls, I had an obsession:

The Giant Fighting Robot genre.

Timber Wolf

Jade Falcon Timber Wolf

Robotech, Gundam and Transformers were my gateway drugs to FASA’s Battletech universe.

In addition to building an easy-to-learn war-fighting dice-based board game that was the centerpiece of the Battletech franchise, FASA created a richly-populated science fiction universe, complete with a detailed timeline of humanity’s ascent to the stars, a constellation of star-system-spanning Houses of mighty families warring against each other (reminiscent of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels).

Beyond the Major Houses (each of which rule over hundreds of billions of subjects/citizens apiece across the planets they control), at the periphery of Inner-Sphere controlled space, were the Spartan-like Clans.

Clan culture sharply contrasted from the Inner Sphere – while Inner Sphere Houses were ruled by dynastic hereditary rulers (some tyrannical despots, others, benevolent dictators), Clans in the Mechverse were warrior/caste-based societies with a heavy eugenic overlay. Indeed, the vast majority of the citizens within Clan society never get to pass along their DNA – Clan children were produced in batches of 15-20 drawn from DNA selected by Clan scientists and grown in canisters as “sibling companies” (or sibko, for short).

Each group of sibko are raised together (which is as close as Clan culture gets to having brothers and sisters) and tested relentlessly from childhood for aptitude, intelligence and reflexes. The bottom decile are culled on a regular basis, relegated to lower-caste stations (merchants, mechanics, etc), until only two or three remain by the time the sibko reaches age 18. Those survivors, upon coming of age, are given the opportunity to serve in the most coveted and admired position within Clan culture: piloting deadly war machines as Mechwarriors.

The trust in the eugenics program is so absolute that the worst insult you can hurl in Clan culture is to refer to someone as a “freebirth” – a person conceived in a human womb.

In the lore of Clan culture, they are the descendants of a rag-tag band of war refugees who scraped together a living, and, starting from extremely limited resources built it into the thriving Spartan society that exists in the current Mechverse. Consequently, Clan culture prized efficiency, and one of my personal favorite concepts I extracted from reading the endless series of books from FASA’s Mechverse was the concept of The Cutdown. (Hey, that’s the subject of this blog post!)

The Cutdown (Clan War Terminology, and its relevance to startup culture and modern business)

Most military objectives can be achieved if you throw enough bullets, bombs, missiles and hardware at it (destroy fortified enemy base at location X. Intercept armed convoy traveling through Z, etc.) In the Clan warrior culture which prizes efficiency, they reserve their highest respect for battle commanders who can make the most out of limited resources.

“The Cutdown” refers to the theoretical minimum level of equipment/manpower necessary to achieve a specific military objective. In preparation for a battle/hostile engagement, Clan battle commanders will typically equip themselves a small margin for error and marshall resources slightly above the Cutdown to assure themselves of victory (“winning with limited resources” only gains you glory if you win. If you’re a loser, nobody cares that you lost with fewer supplies, and a failed operation with insufficient resources is a reflection of the battle commander’s own bad judgment.)

If a Clan battle commander can eke out a victory with less resources than the Cutdown, he’s revered, and such a victory greatly improves his chances of his DNA being indexed added to the codex of his Clan for future sibko breeding programs. (“Destroying that Jade Falcon base should have taken two aerial bombardments and three full battalions of Assault Battlemechs. Commander Dwilt Radick completed that mission with one aerial bombardment and a half-battalion of Assault Mechs, a third of which were still damaged from a previous fight. How the hell does he do it?”)

I’ve privately used the term “Cutdown” within the Silicon Valley startup world, in describing the contrast between well-funded startups which tend to indiscriminately throw money at problems and lean under-funded organizations that must fight for their survival with their wits and cunning. Well-funded startups that are well-above their Cutdown lavish Google-level perks on their overpaid employees – $1200 chairs, top-of-the-line computers for entry-level employees, free organic meals, lavish “team building” exercises, etc. Need a mission-critical engineer? Offer a 1.75x market rate salary, and watch the resumes fly in. Need more traffic to show “growth” to your VC? Make a six-digit purchase of Adwords and show off the rise in “customer interest.”

Lean organizations operating at the razor’s edge of their Cutdown learn to do more with less. Your most-valuable engineer got poached by a hedge fund offering 3x her salary? You’re not going to win a bidding war in this hot market. Your remaining engineers will have to work harder to cover losing her, until your revenues give you enough runway to hire a worthy replacement. Key client demanding functionality of your product you can’t quite build yet? Get on it, or lose the client to your competitor. No, you don’t have additional resources or talent to throw at it – you work harder and sleep at your desk until it’s done, or you lose that client and your company.

I’ve always had a tremendous admiration for both people and organizations that operate at or near their Cutdown. You see the true character of a person or an org when you see them at their hungriest. Are they defensive, peevish, and snarl at others? Are they determined, resourceful, and maintain presence of mind under harsh adversity?

Anyone can be genial and generous when awash in resources. It takes someone special to have that sort of grace under pressure.

Thank you, FASA, for introducing a vocabulary word from a fictional universe that has persisted in my thoughts, many decades beyond when I was fighting-robots-obsessed boy. And thank you, to the men and women I’ve met since, who operate at their own personal Cutdowns to show me what they’re made of, and inspire me to do likewise.

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