The Brutal Elegance of Strategic Amputation

Lessons from Veterinarians on the Kindest Cuts

The patient, in great pain, was laid gently on the table. There were few options at this point. She was found with a severely broken leg, unresponsive, dangling from a ladder. X-ray revealed a total fracture. Nearly snapped in half. The leg, once an asset, had become a liability. 

With a battlefield medic’s decisiveness, the veterinarian decided to cut off “Kanga” the chinchilla’s leg. Through tears, the owner said, “she means a lot to me, and really, I don’t want to lose her.”

My kids love vet shows. It’s a genre, one I would have never watched without them. For once in my TV-with-kids life, I actually like these programs. The kids are big on three in particular: “Heartland Docs” (a vet practice in Nebraska), “Dr. T” (in Texas), and (my favorite practice name), the “Critter Fixers” (in Georgia). 

We’ve seen and unseen everything. I fast-forward whenever anything “prolapses.” (Google it and you’ll see why.) And we’ve watched all manner of animal amputations. Dogs and cats, but also that chinchilla, a cockatiel named “Uno” (a prescient name, if ever there was one), and even a calf named “Cinco” that was born with a hoof and a half coming out of his neck. (After that amputation, the owner renamed him “Quattro.”) 

Veterinarians practicing amputation display admiral clarity and concision. It’s almost entirely a rational decision. Nobody feigns certainty, but they make two calculations on-the-spot. 

1. Is the limb a future liability? 

2. Is rehabilitation cost-effective?

If “No” to both, then get out the scalpel. 

The decision is so stark and so quick mostly because the animal cannot speak. That’s huge in itself—in removing some sentimentality—but also because it forces the vet to come to their own independent decision. Patient silence makes more space for vet expertise. 

And when they do so, there’s some admirable characteristics in vets practicing amputation that strategists might learn from. 

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Many organizations face the interrelated problems of size, layers, and bureaucracy. The scholar Paul Light calls this organizational “thickening,” and perhaps its worst case is in the Department of Defense. In 1960, there were 78 deputy assistant secretaries of defense. By 2010, there were 530. Donald Rumsfeld used to complain in the early 2000s that it took 17 staff levels for him to get to a line officer, and one of his successors, Robert Gates, noted it had grown to 30 levels by his time as secretary of defense. 

Most organizations don’t have 30 layers of staff, but that doesn’t mean they’re lean. Most are too thick, by the simple logic that over time things tend to pile up. Just look around to the average American house, which has tripled in size since World War II to accommodate all that extra junk. 

Clearing away excess can be as important as adding value. In an age of abundance, the defining tool for many strategists will be the shears, the scissors, the scythe. 

Most practicing strategists have a thing or three to learn from Marie Kondo and those Swedish death cleaners. Cut instead of keep. Remove tomorrow’s liabilities. Like the vets that fixed up Kanga the chinchilla, Uno the cockatiel, and Quattro the calf. All three lived and each walked on with one less limb.

But there’s another category: long-term rehabilitation. Care over time. In the vet shows we saw a horse with a cut tendon. It wasn’t immediately life-threatening, but the vet said a full repair would have required surgery followed by a several-months-long stay at a specialty clinic. The owner couldn’t afford that and so the vet executed a Hail Mary treatment plan. They simply casted the hoof in the hope that the tendon would (mostly) repair itself. (It did.)

I once lived for several years in New Zealand a decade ago. Dental care, I was told, was not covered for adults as part of the national health service. As a result, a practicing dentist friend of mine said he had a lot more pulled teeth instead of expensive repair work. 

We don’t think of it often, but dentistry is the ultimate maintenance-over-time. We have a valuable resource that with modest investment protects our ability to masticate food.

But imagine if dentists charged $1,000 for a cleaning. Would you go? For $2,000? Maintenance is worth it, but at what price? 

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What can strategists learn from the crude, brutal calculations of strategic amputations?

Let’s start with the 5 percent you can cut immediately. Don’t try to fight it. There’s always 5 percent just as there’s always 5 pounds a person can stand to lose. Always. The real question isn’t whether you can cut, it’s always how much.

Listen to Daniel Kahneman, who once wrote, “When I work I have no sunk costs.” Don’t let irrational sentimentality get in the way of the right decision.

Small startups are likely pretty lean so there likely isn’t much to cut. But big organizations like the Department of Defense could go a lot farther, particularly if you account for the global mix of allies and adversaries. Other big organizations could be be better situated for the long haul with big cuts made today.

Think of it like a runner. Every organization is meant to propel itself into the future, to go as far as it can go, as fast as it can go. Running speed is essentially a balance between two factors: body composition and strength of stride. The more custard you carry is cost, which makes you slower. The more you remove non-muscle and non-bone, it makes you faster. Every ounce and pound of non-essential weight is a tax on the future.

And if we do it well, a cut is a gain. One badly broken leg will send a chinchilla to the grave. So remove it. Three healthy legs can carry a chinchilla for a full life. 

Just ask Kanga, the critter that got fixed. 

(P.S. For those that are wondering what last week’s essay has to do with this week’s subject, isn’t it obvious—Michael Flynn should be discarded from the military profession as decisively as a chinchilla’s leg. Without a second thought.) 

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“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

“One does not accumulate but eliminate. It is not daily increase but daily decrease. The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity.” (Bruce Lee)

*Editor’s Note:  

Readers, I need your feedback! Two topics to consider next week and I need your help in zeroing in on which one to choose. Should we tackle meaningful risk versus calculated risk—or—the supreme importance of pre-checking your strategy? Let me know in the comments section.

And, as always, what do you think about today’s topic? Please let me know with a comment, and, if you enjoyed this, forward Strategy Notes on to anyone you think might benefit or find it of interest. Your word-of-mouth mention to another person means everything to this community’s continued growth. 

All the very best & see you next week, Matt