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The Geospatial Edge: Issue 10, Summer 2024

The Geospatial Edge is Esri Canada’s periodic newsletter for managers and professionals tasked with growing their organizations’ geospatial capabilities. In this issue, Matt Lewin discusses a model for framing and presenting complex ideas—including ideas having to do with geospatial strategy and technology—to non-technical audiences.

Crafting a compelling and engaging geospatial strategy is no easy task. You can spend weeks identifying business needs, brainstorming GIS solutions and designing the necessary processes and governance mechanisms. After launching the strategy with great excitement, it may still stall out weeks or even months later. Sadly, this can be a common issue for managers. In fact, I was asked about it just this week. So, what should you do when your strategy stalls? Drawing on insights from the work of Roger Martin and some recent guidance from HBR, I have a few suggestions.

Recognize and diagnose the stall

The first step in overcoming any roadblock is figuring out what's gone wrong. This requires examining both the internal design of your strategy and the external conditions in which it operates. Often, strategies fail not because they are inherently flawed but because external conditions have changed or internal capabilities are lacking or misaligned. Leaders should ask probing questions: have there been changes upstream that could impact your strategy? For instance, has there been an organizational restructuring or a new IT strategy that conflicts with critical components of your geospatial strategy? Have new business priorities emerged, necessitating a refocus on spatial data requirements or application functionality? Or is your team and organization unable to effectively execute the strategy due to lacking capabilities? A thorough and honest analysis is necessary to pinpoint the specific causes of the stall.

In one case, a city's GIS team lost its senior executive advocate for their geospatial strategy due to retirement. Accountability was passed on to another senior leader, but their knowledge of and engagement in the strategy did not match that of their predecessor. As a result, projects and initiatives on the roadmap stalled, and budget allocation became more challenging as the strategy produced underwhelming results. For this organization, without a strong and influential advocate promoting the benefits of GIS and the geographic approach, it was unlikely that the strategy would achieve its vision. To overcome this, we recommended that the GIS manager re-engage and re-educate a collective group of senior leaders on the goals of the strategy and establish a level of "advocacy by committee." This would shift senior-level accountability and advocacy from one person to a few, thus relieving the pressure on the main advocate (who was feeling the burden of being the internal GIS evangelist despite being unfamiliar with the technology). This approach worked for the most part. While it is difficult to replace a genuinely passionate and knowledgeable leader, the committee approach was sufficient to continue with critical projects and investments.

Another tactic for diagnosing the source of a stall is to examine the core components of your strategy and identify any potential issues. I have previously discussed the seven building blocks of a geospatial strategy. Review your key decisions regarding applications, data, technology, governance, delivery processes, workforce and culture. It's possible that fundamental assumptions or strategic decisions in one building block are in conflict with others. For example, you might have proposed a web-based spatial open data hub without addressing data privacy and usage issues that prevent online publication (yes, this happens!). It is important to uncover these misalignments that will inevitably hinder progress.

Address lingering doubts

It's common for people to have doubts about your strategy from the beginning. There might be concerns about whether the strategy takes into account modern GIS technology trends or if it's flexible enough to adapt to industry changes. Leadership might question the realism of the forecasted ROI. Doubts may also arise about the adequacy of resources—whether the team has the necessary skills to execute the strategy effectively, or there may be confusion about team members' roles and responsibilities.

Unfortunately, many of these doubts will remain unspoken. That's why it's crucial that you create a safe environment for people to voice their concerns. Otherwise, inaction could stall progress. One suggestion is to conduct regular engagement surveys. If needed, make them anonymous and consider engaging a third party to compile the results to ensure honest feedback. The goal is to bring unspoken doubts to the surface and address them directly.

Engage your team

When a strategy hits a roadblock, it's an ideal time to connect with your team on a deeper level. Remember, the people closest to you are the ones you depend on to bring the strategy to life. Engage them in diagnosing the problem and coming up with potential solutions. Their front-line insights can be incredibly valuable in understanding both the internal and external challenges that the strategy is facing. Additionally, involving the team can help reignite their commitment to the strategic goals, thus improving execution capabilities.

Adapt and iterate

One of Roger Martin's key tenets of strategy development is that strategy is a practice. It's something you do, not just something you say. It's not simply a document describing your intentions; it's an ongoing process of refinement and course correction in response to changing conditions or new information. The sooner you make adjustments in the process, the better. Right from the start, ensure you monitor progress regularly and don't be afraid to make corresponding corrections. Small, incremental changes can often lead to significant improvements in performance without the risks associated with large-scale strategic overhauls.

I understand that this advice may be coming late for some. You may already be well into your geospatial strategy and have only recently realized you've hit a wall. For those in that situation, take note of the following advice...

Learn and evolve

Every setback, including a stalled GIS strategy, is a valuable learning opportunity. It provides a unique chance to gain deeper insights into geospatial technology, your organization and your own leadership. By reflecting on what worked, what didn't and why, you can gather important lessons that will inform future strategies. This commitment to continuous learning and improvement ensures that future efforts steer clear of the same organizational pitfalls, fostering a culture of optimism and forward-thinking.

When your strategy stalls, the path forward is not about discarding your plan at the first sign of trouble; instead, it involves a thoughtful examination of your strategic assumptions, an adaptable approach to execution, and a commitment to continuous learning and engagement with your team. Don't give up! Refocus your efforts and keep going.

Let’s talk

Do you have stories from when a GIS strategy stalled or an important initiative failed to deliver or lost momentum? Send me an email or connect with me on LinkedIn. I’d like to hear about your experiences!

All the best,


The Geospatial Edge is a periodic newsletter about geospatial strategy and location intelligence by Esri Canada’s director of management consulting, Matt Lewin. This blog post is a copy of the issue that was sent to subscribers in June 2024. If you want to receive The Geospatial Edge right to your inbox along with related messages from Esri Canada, visit our Communication Preference Centre and select “GIS Strategy” as an area of interest.

About the Author

Matthew Lewin is the Director of Strategic Advisory Services for Esri Canada. His efforts are focused on helping management teams optimize and transform their business through GIS and location-based strategies. As a seasoned consultant, Matthew has provided organizations in the public and private sectors with practical strategies that enable GIS as an enterprise business capability. At the intersection of business and technology is where Matthew’s interests lie, and he thrives on helping organizations bridge the gap to achieve their most challenging GIS ambitions.

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