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What’s a visionary? Working definition and career roadmap.

“Visionary”, like “entrepreneur”, have become adjectives of praise instead of descriptions of activity. In other words, meaningless. Visionary was Jobs, OK. So what else can you say to define one, in a working way? How can you tell a “visionary” from a “self-appointed prophet” or a “fad loudmouth”? How can you become one?

Eric Ries (probably a visionary) asked the question in a blog post that has been incorporated into LinkedIn’s new “follow the leader” feature (something else visionary, if not strictly very innovative). He didn’t nail it, but Roger Belveal of Intuit came up with a phrase I’m keeping for future use.

Visionary is someone who understands the problem at a level of abstraction such that when a potential solution appears, he can spot how it might fit the need, even though it isn’t packaged in a box with a label that says, ‘Solution to the problem’“.

Original? Don’t know. Spot on? Very likely.

A visionary is not someone with a “reality distortion field”; that’s a good salesman. He’s not someone with a wild, bright and boundless imagination; that’s a dreamer. A visionary is someone who knows the issue at such a fundamental level that he (or she) can recognize or come up with a new way forward that makes so much damned sense that he can change the flow of things: thought, markets, politics.

The key here is “fundamental level” or “level of abstraction”. Being an expert in tree biology won’t enable you to be a visionary in forest management. It might help, but in fact being too close to the current, usual ways and practices of solving a specific problem is usually bad for the ability to look at the global issue and see an alternative way forward.

In short, a visionary in practice is someone who has taken a step back and taken the time to reevaluate the issue in a wider light. Who has thought about the “why” and not just the “how” (the “what for” is middle ground).

Take that approach to an industry (or a policy) and you’re a visionary. Take it to an organization, and someone will recognize good old, transformative business process reengineering. As Wikipedia says, “Re-engineering emphasized a holistic focus on business objectives and how processes related to them, encouraging full-scale recreation of processes rather than iterative optimization of subprocesses.”


Being a visionary is not a God-given gift to a few, is an approach to problem solving that involves deep capabilities of analysis, serious domain knowledge, a wide and eclectic vision to take into account the frame of the problem, an informed mind and a keen eye to find solutions outside the usual domain. Plus an ingrained disrespect for “the way things are done” and a penchant for risky decisions.

When we choose to become specialists, we blindfold ourselves. When we decide according to what is “feasible”, we blindfold ourselves. When we prefer the well-trod path, we blindfold ourselves.

A visionary, literally, thinks outside that box to find an alternative approach. And then (here’s the last rub) he climbs down to the nit-grit and finds a way to implement it, to get from “here” to “there” in viable, hard-but-not-impossible steps. And has the guts to push it through. Something that in the enterprise is called “change management” and is famously difficult to achieve… and outside is called “revolutionizing an industry”. Or a country, for that matter.

That implementation step is the difference between a “precursor” or dreamer, and a “visionary” or leader.

You do need domain specialisation for that. In a wide, well-led, very good team.




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