Splitting the Switch – Keeping Your IT Projects on Track in a World of Crisscrossing Agendas

James Denyer - Technology Strategist

 Photo by Arne Hückelheim

Photo by Arne Hückelheim

There’s an old phrase in the railroad industry known as “splitting the switch.” Essentially, it’s when a switch on the tracks becomes worn and the flanged wheels of the train hit a small gap between the fixed rail and the set switch point, forcing it open and sending the train running through it in the wrong direction. The usual result is derailment, sometimes disastrous, like the famous one in Times Square in 1928.

As a CIO or an IT decision maker, you’re probably uncomfortable with the potential consequences of something like that in a real-world business setting.

It used to be that you were more in control of the switches and tracks, your own, and those of other lines of business. But that hasn’t been the case for a while. And when you’re trying to guard so many rail lines—and they’re growing every day—it’s super easy to lose sight of your own.

So now it's late May. That means the year's nearly half over. It's a great time for some self-reflection, for walking to the top of the bridge overlooking that railyard and seeing where you’ve come, and where you’re on course to go.

Over the past 5-6 months, I’m sure you worked hard to have a seat at the table with the business, and to define and get buy-in for your mission. I’m assuming you’ve built a viable technology plan for the year to support it. But are you still on track? We find it's an all-too-familiar story that IT leaders get pulled into working in the weeds (what we call “in the business”) versus at a strategic level (“on the business”).

A recent MIT CIO study gives us some ideas where tech leaders should be focusing their energy: 

“Beyond managing their enterprise's IT organization, these days some CIOs own business processes; others have revenue targets; most manage a network of external partners, suppliers, and customers; and still others manage shared services developed by HR, financial services, and sourcing. Digitization of the business creates more connections between individuals, enterprises, devices, and governments.”

Talk about tracks.

So if you’re feeling a little “track-split,” what will make the difference for the next half of the calendar year? 

Here’s the advice I’d give to IT leaders if they were to ask. First, just stop and take a breath. Consider what your current priorities are at this moment—for you, and for the greater organization. List them out if you have to, which is great for perspective. Next, identify which ones are now the most critical and strike through those that aren’t. Can you rank them? Can you separate the vital from the nice-to-have’s? The hard facts from the shiny objects?

Next, it’s always a good idea to reach out to your business counterparts to see if their priorities are still on track, or if they’ve switched. Aligning your goals to theirs is important, so think hard about how those priorities you identified support positive business outcomes. In other words, can you map your tech priorities to their business objectives?

If you haven’t done so already, it’s time to create charters for key priorities and then assign resources for each initiative. This solidifies them—makes them more real—and attaches visibility and accountability to your goals.

Finally, communication. Start spreading the news far and wide about your IT objectives and how they work to accomplish your mission. This could be any forum: town halls, all-hands meetings, one on ones, internal conference calls, and staff or even board meetings.

One of the most important things we’ve learned from the railroad is that, since track switching is inevitable, near constant vigilance and shared visibility prevents derailment, keeps things moving smoothly, and keeps them safe.



James Denyer
Technology Strategist

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