The railroad of (no) choice

In those first 100 days, it will become evident if you are about to be railroaded or if you have to present the choice without creating railroading for those data laggards. The latter being the job, the former being a problem.

To be clear, railroaded means in this context:

  • to force something to be officially approved or accepted without much discussion or thought.
  • to force someone into doing something quickly, usually without enough information.

As the CDO, are you about to find that the tracks have already been laid and that you on the train and it is going in one direction. You are now the figurehead of the new shinny data plan based on already accepted wisdom. Your hope, before starting the role, is that it is more analogous to a personal transport situation. This would be where you get to pick the fuel (food, combustible), vehicle (walk, run, bike, motorcycle, car, van, lorry, aeroplane, boat), the destination and the route. Using the analogy of the train on the tracks, the decision to create a data-led organisation, the ontology, the data we have and the value we will create has been made irrespective of what you come up with, or what the data might be able to tell you. The processes are in place, and your role is not to craft, invest, create or imagine but to follow the tracks of command and control. It is at that moment that you realise just how good the CEO is at sales.

In this case, your priorities are: How to find the right tools that align or match what you are faced with? And, how do you take a senior leadership team and fellow directors on a journey to discover that they can change the rails, change the vehicle and be open to changing how we see the journey from A to B? Indeed based on a pandemic, do we need to physically move at all?

When the “railroaded” is you and you are being asked to approve something when you have not had the time or opportunity to gather the data or understand the processes, what are the right words to create time to explore and not appear indecisive, trying to procrastinate or evasive?

Presenting an argument about why you need more time is likely to fail, as the defensive response will always be “we have already done the work but it is your decision — trust us” Asking questions that check that the choices and opinions are the right ones or to determine the consequences will equally draw you into an argument where “the facts are the facts,” you have to decide or do you not trust us?

One question that will give some breathing space is “For what are we optimising,” as explored below.

The two-axis on the model set the horizontal scale of the short and long term against the vertical axis how many variables, from one to many. In asking the question “for what are we optimising,” you are not presenting this framework, but use the question to understand what the “railroading” is trying to achieve; through understanding what the decision being expected is optimising for. With this knowledge, you may find it is easier to take the railroaded decision. If you can conclude they are optimising for many externalities and long term, you are immersed in a team that can cope and manage complexity- this is going to be fun. If this is short term and a single variable you know that incentives are the significant driver and slowly changing the incentives will create a better place for making more complex data decisions. One scenario is outside of this framing which is that they actually don’t know what they are optimising for and the decision at hand is just another reaction to previous poor railroaded decisions. Definitely a red flag moment.

Note to the CEO

Using railroading as an activity to discover an individuals capability and backbone is always likely to go wrong. In this data-driven complex world where both the data and the analysis is a long way from your immediate access, you may also feel you are being railroaded by the signals and noise. It is likely you will ask “is this recommendation optimising for xyz (the plan you have agreed to) and how can you show this is the optimal path without using the same data” Love the misattributed quote that Ronald Reagan stole from the Russians but so can we. Trust, but verify.