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What makes a good “visionary”?
by Clinton Keith on 08/11/11 02:45:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


There is a lot of talk about the visionary for a game, the person who creates and guide the vision through development.  Who is the visionary and what do they need to do to make their vision come to life?  I’ve been a project manager…not a product visionary, but I’ve worked with great visionaries and poor visionaries.  These are my impressions and questions:

The role of a visionary on a creative project is an essential and demanding one.  Many companies that consistently produce great products owe much of their success to their visionaries;  Apple has Jobs,  Pixar has Lasseter,  Nintendo has Miyamoto, etc.  But visionaries are nothing without talented teams to realize their vision.  Vision needs to be communicated, reinforced, inspected and adapted to the emerging reality of the game.  This is the visionary’s fundamental responsibility to the team.

A visionary must be demanding. They have to:

  • Unflinchingly question and test their vision early against the actual game.
  • Not allow work-in-progress (partially completed or unproven work) to drag out too long.
  • Call out substandard work immediately.
  • Ensure that the stakeholders are aware of progress and are able to safely air feedback.
  • Own a black turtleneck sweater

Successful visionaries have often been described as demanding, uncompromising, even brutal in their rejection of work that does not fulfill their vision.   Lasseter resets movie projects late in development because the story or character aren’t right, Job's throws tantrums when a design isn’t intuitive and Miyamoto cancels games that don’t "find the fun fast".  These are all examples of strong reactions to an emerging product that doesn’t live up to a vision.  Does this mean that a visionary must be a tyrant? I hope not.   There are as many different styles than there are personalities.  The key, it seems,  is to maintain integrity to a vision and to “course correct” towards the best game. 

Good visionaries should be willing to compromise because no vision is perfect.  Compromise is necessary to refine a game or to react to the unexpected, but compromise seems to go bad when the integrity of the vision is the thing being compromised: when the visionary assumes that some poor-performing part of the game "will be fixed later" or a bad mechanic "will be fun someday"; if the story-line isn't working, if the animation doesn't look right or if the system is sluggish, the visionary must demand correction.  However, when the visionary is afraid to hurt the team's feelings or needs to hit an arbitrary milestone date, then the wrong game is created and the team must eventually face the mad scramble to cobble something together when time runs out and a vision is sacrificed for a ship date.  

Things we know:

  • Black turtleneck sweaters aren’t enough.
  • Methodology can’t automate the role.  Games will never come from an assembly line.
  • Vision, alignment, talent and leadership are all necessary elements of any great game and can’t be separated. 


  • Do visionaries have to be mentors?  Some of the best visionaries work with creators to demonstrate how to best work.  I’ve read about Lasseter sitting down with individual animators to teach them how to animate the eyes of a particular character.  Not all visionaries do this though.
  • Do visionaries need a big job title?  It would seem they do in most cases, but it is it absolutely necessary?
  • How thin should they be spread?  Can vision be taught?  Pixar production is limited to how many visionaries they have working for them.  Brad Bird couldn’t even take a few days of vacation before he was recalled to head up Ratatouille.  Steve Jobs’ illness has everyone wondering whether Apple will tumble when he leaves.
  • How does a studio identify and handle a poor visionary?  It’s easy to promote the wrong person to the visionary role, but hard to remove them.  A bad vision will kill a game or even a studio.  A bad visionary will blame the team and not the vision.

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Jacek Wesolowski
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Visionaries don't have to be mentors, but they need to communicate their visons constructively, that is: be able to explain what the vision is (as opposed to "what the vision is not"). "We're making a game about giraffes" is a good start. "I want ten pieces of animal concept art for tomorrow so I can pick one" is not.

Visionaries need tools for keeping the vision consistent. It's difficult to do when someone can override your decisions on a whim, and my experience tells me this is exactly what people in management positions do whenever they fail to understand something. A visionary needs people to either obey them or trust them; and while I do believe trust is much better, it's also not easily earned. I can imagine a visionary relying on charisma and the ability to convince only, but I've never seen anything like it in real life. The amount of trust required would be huge, i.e. big enough to convince people to let go of their egos, ambitions, anxieties, etc.

I think you use the same part of your mind for developing a vision and for learning it, which means most people are not sufficiently trained. But I think a good visionary may be able to train other people to become "deputy visionaries". In fact, that's what I would do if I were a visionary in a creative team. It should make my job easier since being able to understand the vision would help to reduce trust issues.

Similarly, in order to identify poor vision as such, you need to be able to dissect it, i.e. display a visionary style of thinking. In other words, poor visions may be identified through peer review - but that would probably lead to personality clashes in many situations. However, in my experience, bad visionaries tend to make their own incompetence apparent, because their teams tend to fall apart. I think you should not judge a visionary by whether or not their project meets you expectations (though obviously this is important, too). Instead, judge them by the wellbeing of their team.

Clinton Keith
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Hi Jacek,

I agree with everything you said except possibly:

> I think you should not judge a visionary by whether or not their project meets

> you expectations (though obviously this is important, too). Instead, judge

> them by the wellbeing of their team.

I don't think that a good vision and well being of the team are exclusive, but making both the responsibility of the visionary I consider a problem. There are often conflicts between the two and both are critical....I just believe that it works out better if they are each the responsibility of different individuals and there is a natural tension between them both (rather than having to hire a schizophrenic who can debate it with themselves ;)

Of course if one dominates the other, it can be bad too....


Joe McGinn
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A thought-provoking article Clinton, thanks for trying to define this.

My own approach is two-fold:

Firstly, communication of the vision to the team. Treat it like marketing. Simplicity, visual posters, and repetition of game pillars and key design goals. It's well documented that people do not retain written information well, especially in this day an age when we consume so much of it. So for key information like this, that is too important to miss, trea it like marketing.

Secondly: a rational, transparent decision-making process. The game pillars inform design goals. Design goals inform decision making. Simple but not easy, I must devote constant energy to keep this on-track. This ensures the vision is being supported down to the dozens of little decisions made on the floor every day. A side-benifit is transparency: the argument for a decision is open for all to see, and is described in the terms of those design goals. This buids team confidence and fosters creativity by removing ego from the equation: the best idea wins.

Clinton Keith
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Joe, great points. I like hearing about a structure like pillars->goals->daily decisions that helps visionaries communicate vision, which seems to be where they fail the most.

Completely agree on the visible stuff. I love tools like "Innovation Games" to help vision be shared.

Karna Krishnan
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How and where does the role of the visionary come into play in the Scrum framework of an organisation? While we could say a visionary would fill in the shoes of a product owner, the visionary you speak of ideally would be a mentor invested and committed in the game which is in contrast with the traditional role of a PO.

Clinton Keith
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Back about 8 years ago, one of the first things we changed about our use of Scrum was the role of the product owner from someone outside the team (Ken Schwaber called a "chicken") to someone who was part of a team ("pig") for the very reason you mention. Product owners are the visionaries or guides for the vision in the Scrum framework and they need to be just as committed as the team.

Fortunately, Ken and the Scrum Alliance changed the PO's role to be one that is a member of the team around that time as well.

Andrew Grapsas
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Hey, Clinton,

Great article! Definitely a good topic and one we should all think about.

I'm actually going to argue against the role of visionaries and instead suggest self-learning organizations. Visionaries tend to run the show the way they want, not the way the people doing the work want. As you've noted, if the visionary gets sick, has a specific personality, or, per chance, just plain old sucks, the team and company can suffer -- long work hours, low engagement, no clear sense of leadership in the vacuum left behind, etc.

In "The Fifth Discipline" Senge proposes an idea of shared vision. That is, everyone on the team has a deep understanding of what's happening and why. In many ways, this links into Lean's respect and allowing the people following the process to craft it. If we can't trust our employees to understand the situation and provide constructive insight, why did we hire them?

I would argue that we should look at failures. Do we see a lack of vision? Or do we see poor visionaries? Is it more common to find a great visionary or a lacking visionary? Why do we need a visionary?

In my opinion, the team will always be more talented than a single individual. The real trick isn't hiring a visionary to be the primary stakeholder and influencer; but, to have a team that can organize itself, understand the scope and depth of the problems at hand, and has the training to achieve great things with a free enough system (the system around the team is just as important as the team) to allow amazing results.

If we have a great visionary, a great team, and a crappy system, then all will still fail.

Again, love the post! There have been several great ones on Gama lately! Let's keep this up!

Glenn Storm
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This view seems very appropriate and yet still consistent with the idea of the role of visionary as significant and valuable, _if_ we make the distinction between visionary and vision. In short, following the visionary is less desirable than following the vision, and if the shared focus is not on the aim of the project, the team's efforts will suffer.

Focusing on the visionary can lead to assumptions that the vision they speak of is gospel, that the person can do no wrong. Focusing on the vision allows for course correction, improvement and innovation without the potential for loosing faith. Critically, it also allows for more than one person to hold the vision together, and ideally the entire team holds the same vision.

It does seem to be the perspective the team has on the vision that matters most.

Andrew Grapsas
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Very good insight. I definitely agree!

I am a firm believer in having leadership from within the team. If that's a visionary that shares vision? Awesome.

I'm just always cautious about the volatile conditions that arise when there's a force outside of a team influencing that team. Doing so very easily leads to destructive emotions -- attachment to "my land", anxiety from uncontrolled change, so forth.

Clinton Keith
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Once again, Glenn and Andrew jump in and double the thought provocation! ;)

It makes a lot of sense that:

- Vision and visionary are separate

- The focus must be on the vision, not the role.

- Vision MUST be shared

- Great teams need clear elevating goals.

but I still believe in the value of the visionary over the vision being evenly owned by a team. Yes, a good visionary is rare and a point-of-failure, but I don't believe we can apply systems theory to divide and conquer the role into a set of rules. Yes, visionaries fail more than they succeed, but there are even fewer examples of successful games from teams with no visionary. I tried to think of some examples, but the best I could do is come up with some teams that had one or two flag wavers that were "visionaries without titles".

Thanks for adding much to the conversation. Hugely valuable. You guys are visionaries! ;)

Glenn Storm
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Neat topic, well focused, good questions. Thanks, Clinton! Some connections can be highlighted from these insightful observations about the role of visionary, both truth and myth.

"The role of a visionary on a creative project is an essential and demanding one ... But visionaries are nothing without talented teams to realize their vision." This one is key. It's outlining a organizational dynamic that all successful creative teams have at their core: a unifying vision, shepherded by a talented and respected leader, who leads a high-performing team that works well together and is eager to travel toward that vision holistically. Note that there is an important distinction between the visionary and the vision. The vision is worthwhile for the length of the project, the visionary's value is in how well the current project's vision is shaped and championed during the course of development. That is to say, individually, neither the vision or visionary are sacrosanct, but together they make up the driving force a team can reliably follow. This dynamic also points to the prime importance of team makeup and the role successful visionaries have in shaping the team.

Another connection between these, "Vision needs to be communicated, reinforced, inspected and adapted to the emerging reality of the game. ... Good visionaries should be willing to compromise because no vision is perfect.", and these, "Does this mean that a visionary must be a tyrant?" ... "The key, it seems, is to maintain integrity to a vision and to 'course correct' towards the best game." ... "compromise seems to go bad when the integrity of the vision is the thing being compromised". Here, the connection surrounds the importance of the role itself: without _some_ unifying force, a team's effort is distinctly individualistic and disjointed. The force to unify the efforts of the team is what makes a team effective, and this force must have [recalling physics] both mass and momentum, this force must have power. On the flip side, the danger in granting this power is in misinterpreting the role of the visionary; that is, if the visionary themselves abuses that power and looses focus on the vision, or if the course corrections and rigorous adherence to vision is seen as selfish displays of power and status. In short, if the visionary is the focus at the expense of the vision, the team's efforts are uncoordinated at best, but more likely dysfunctional with the resulting product or service reflecting that dynamic.

These questions surrounding the visionary role are fascinating and critical to our understanding. Again, there may be supportive connections to be made here that may spark further questions and discussion points.

"Do visionaries have to be mentors?" The balance described in the post above is appropriate. Visionaries need talented teams, but they also need to have the talent both to work with them, and to recognize that talent in making up the team. When considering that successful leaders often recruit people more talented than they are, this connection can be brought to light. Large creative collaborative projects all require a team with a diverse makeup of specialized individuals that themselves lead sub-teams in a functional organization. The savvy visionary knows that the vision cohesion leadership is a critical form of support they give to their team, that is consistent with letting them perform their work according to their expertise. Seen in this way, mentoring is just a stone's throw away from that kind of support.

"Do visionaries need a big job title?" This one could be misleading. The aforementioned need for the role to have power seems to suggest, "well, duh". But, when the reason why the power is needed is considered, a particular nuance emerges. The visionary is responsible for the primary factor that determines the aim of the team's efforts, leading to the relative success of the project overall. If the vision is off, for whatever reason, the project is off. This perspective appropriately puts the focus on the vision, which must be successful more than it needs to be rigid. The power required to make necessary course corrections toward success involves a level of trust, respect and at times faith on the part of the team. If that kind of relationship with the team exists regardless of the visionary's title, it can work, although in larger teams, a more traditional organizational structure is relied upon to convey consistent professional expectations.

"How thin should they be spread?" Aside from the need for the highest performing talent on the team, this role is paramount to the success of large creative collaborative efforts. This is a demanding role that spans the entire development, from code to effects, from concept to customer support. Even with a well-coordinated design team, the visionary is needed everywhere during the entire development. This is not a role for the faint of heart or of weak conviction. That said, burning out your visionary mid-project could be one of the most tragic situations a large project can face.

"Can vision be taught?" If selflessness, sacrifice and the undying love of the craft and respect for each of the aspects that make up the development can be taught, then maybe. Add to that, leadership, business savvy and a presence that does not need to tell people who holds the vision, and the chances get better. Now, add the core skills in various disciplines the visionary must work with, a patience and bravery associated with creating, continually shaping and refining something great out of nothing, and the ability to form the vision of a viable product, service or experience that is within the current constraints ... This is asking a lot of a teacher, and yet, see the above point about visionaries necessarily mentoring.

"How does a studio identify and handle a poor visionary?" See tragic note above. Rebooting may be the only recourse in a situation such as this, unless you add the skills like 'fixer' (Harvey Keitel as 'the Wolf") to the list above for the incoming visionary. A more interesting question may be, "How does a studio identify and handle a good visionary?" While examples of poor criteria can probably fill this space for comments, the proper criteria is more likely found in examining the actual role of the visionary, as Clinton is doing here. More than being personable, convincing or just 'in charge', the visionary must take on a role that requires a considerable amount of practical knowledge and expertise, although they then must let others do that work in their own way, and support them doing it; which as mentioned, includes primarily shepherding the vision cohesion that the team needs to succeed. It's a position of power that sacrifices for the team, a position of expertise that nurtures the team's own expertise, a position of creative energy that balances between consistently holding a vision together and constantly questioning it for the purpose of improving it.

LOL @ black turtleneck, Clinton. I enjoy this topic a lot. Thanks again. I worked with Brad Bird and saw first hand how carefully he forms the team, how thin he is spread, how much he relies upon the individual leaders within the team, and how much the entire team relies upon his vision. I've worked with other visionaries and seen tantrums, but Brad's style never included ego; seemingly because the focus shared among the whole team was always appropriately on the vision for the project, not the visionary.

Clinton Keith
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Wow....thanks. Very eloquently put. I think this part stands out:

"Here, the connection surrounds the importance of the role itself: without _some_ unifying force, a team's effort is distinctly individualistic and disjointed. The force to unify the efforts of the team is what makes a team effective, and this force must have [recalling physics] both mass and momentum, this force must have power. On the flip side, the danger in granting this power is in misinterpreting the role of the visionary; that is, if the visionary themselves abuses that power and looses focus on the vision, or if the course corrections and rigorous adherence to vision is seen as selfish displays of power and status. In short, if the visionary is the focus at the expense of the vision, the team's efforts are uncoordinated at best, but more likely dysfunctional with the resulting product or service reflecting that dynamic."

I now want to write another book now so I can use it as a sidebar! ;)



Joe McGinn
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A side-point to this ... I think I am a good 'visionary' in terms of communicating the vision to the team, and making sure decisions are in support of the vision. As creative lead on the team the vast majority of my energy is spent on these two things.

Coming up with a great idea, or having the best ideas, to be honest that's the least important part of my job. Not even my job per se ... everyone on the team can and does come up with great ideas! What I bring is a process for determing which idea is best for *this* game.

Clinton Keith
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Also, "Hot Spots" is a great book about teams which focuses much on the essential part of vision:

marty howe
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Good article Clinton, except for the lame joke about sweaters *sigh* Maybe the games industry will mature in a few more decades.

Do visionaries have to be mentors?

A good visionary will WANT to be a mentor. This way, their vision gets articulated properly and clearly, and the game and everyone on the team will benefit

Do visionaries need a big job title?

Who cares about job titles. A good visionary only cares about their vision, not what it says on their business card or email signature. The best visionaries are quiet and introverted, and let their WORK do the talking (Alfred Hitchcock)

How thin should they be spread? Can vision be taught?

Too much effort and a waste of time to try and teach someone to be a visionary. You either have it, or you don't. It's that simple. Staff need to look to visionaries for guidance and direction, why tear your hair out trying to explain something intangible to your team? Trust the visionary (if they're good) and make a good game. That's it.

How does a studio identify and handle a poor visionary?

It's not really the studios job to identify or handle a visionary, is it? If they suck (or are poor using your words) then they're not a visionary. They're just someone TRYING to be a visionary, or faking it.

Michael Joseph
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I think you can identify them at least in some cases by their past products.

Clinton Keith
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Right. The games speak for the vision.

@Marty Howe, don't you think that a poor visionary wouldn't lead to poor games? If so, the studio would be endangered and would need to "handle" that, right?

marty howe
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I don't know

Bart Stewart
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A couple of small things to add to the inspiring and practical points above.

It seems to me that the crucial function of the visionary in a group of any kind can be summed up as "maintaining thematic focus." The special role they play is insuring that all the daily and weekly and monthly tasks support the overall goal. That has both a negative and a positive component. On the one hand, if it doesn't contribute or it isn't working, then the visionary has to have the power to insure that it gets cut as soon as possible. He may or may not exercise that control directly/personally, but he has to be able to make it happen because, in a real world of limited resources (including time), anything that doesn't help hurts.

The other aspect is positive: the visionary gets to inspire team members to greatness. This is often the part we are allowed to see -- Steve Jobs looking for what's "insanely great," John Lasseter helping animators with eyes, and so on -- but it's just half of the necessary job of maintaining a laser-like focus among a diverse group of people on a very specific creative outcome.

I think that speaks to Andrew's point about distributing ownership thoughout a group. I think most of us would agree that it's valuable to have people invested in their parts of the process. But I think a creative endeavor can't distribute creative responsibility without diluting the coherency of the vision. This is why "designed by a committee" is a pejorative.

Of course, the flip side of ceding control to one person is that it's easier to follow one person off a cliff. Not all visions can be achieved. And some should not be.

That said, assuming the goal is achievable and worthy, most creative works generally considered great seem to come from a singular visionary, and not just because it's easier to ascribe a group's work to one individual.

Speaking of groups, there's also the practical question of how to turn visions into products.

A model I like to use comes from what is probably the most effective hierarchical institution ever designed: the military. Successful military campaigns -- which, like game development, involve many people sacrificing together to achieve a desired goal -- are invariably the result of tactical action organized into operations guided by strategies for reaching an envisioned end state. That is: vision -> strategy -> operations -> tactics.

In game development terms, this is a visionary supported by a lead designer who translates the vision into a strategic plan (usually a high-level design) and a producer who creates the overall plan of action and allocates the resources required to implement that strategy.

The producer and designer then convert each step of the strategy into mid-level operations (like "user interface" or "combat design"), each of which is the responsibility of team leads. Finally, the leads break down each operational goal into specific, measurable tactical actions. Control flows down, information flows up, and -- when it works -- the whole system loops continuously to insure that all activity contributes to the ultimate top-level vision.

The role of the visionary in this model is not to do things personally, as that would be an inefficient use of their gifts. (Admirals don't load and fire the guns.) Their role is threefold: define a desirable and achievable goal; articulate that goal clearly, energetically, and unceasingly; and inspire every member of the team to contribute their best effort to the achievement of that goal.

At that point, strategy and operations and tactics have to do their jobs. Vision is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success; a big project takes a team of skilled specialists.

But the visionary who knows how to get the best from a team is a crucial part of this process. No one else has the responsibility for making sure that the whole system persistently maintains focus on the top-level goal of the system. It's when that directed and energetic force is applied that great things are accomplished.

Clinton Keith
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Hi Bart,

Great points. There are valuable practices about the military. Among them, the use of breaking down unit size according to Dunbar numbers (the limit of unit size with effective communication) centuries before those numbers were discovered.

However, I think the USMC leads the pack with small unit command and control techniques that show the best way of implementing a strategic vision. Marine squads are given the greatest level of self control to achieve a mission. Whereas other services dictate the specifics to their soldiers, a Marine is aware of the overall goal and has a lot more freedom to "improvise, adapt and overcome", as their mantra says.

The same principle applies to game teams. A visionary has to communicate the vision clearly to that 80 people are working on the same game and making thousands of small decisions everyday that are aligned with that vision. These daily decisions can't possibly be managed by leads to that level of detail.