There is No Them

Lessons on leadership from the world of game development

The ‘Ideas = Value’ Delusion

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“I don’t want to share my idea because it’s going to change the industry, and I don’t want it to get stolen.”

This sentiment echoes something I’ve heard over the years, and yet I was not expecting to run into it while speaking to applicants about joining the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy. I realized I was surprised that anyone seeking to join the DSGA, a program focused on leadership and management development in video games, would still be holding onto this belief.

It’s a belief that has many variations.

  • “I had that idea years ago” in response to a new game, movie, book, etc.
  • “I don’t share my best ideas at work because I don’t want them to belong to my employer.”
  • “I have notebooks full of great ideas.”

It’s the belief that the idea alone is of value, that good ideas are scarce, and that ideas should be owned. This belief is itself a delusion, one that people are better off living without. Any but the most novice who suffer from this delusion cannot be taken seriously by other professionals. And the most novice must be taught why this belief is not an outlook that will benefit them in their career.

Ideas are easy, execution is hard. Execution is what brings value to an idea. 

Recently Warren Spector, the Director of the DSGA, responded to an applicant about this very issue, with a response I thought was particularly well crafted. The response could be paraphrased as “If someone steals your idea and executes it poorly, you can still execute it better later on without too much worry. If someone steals your idea and executes it well, before you do, than they deserve the success for having worked harder to get that idea into the world.”

Many modern work places, never mind just video game development, require a level of creative problem solving on many different levels. Individuals who are committed to the success of the group know that by putting all ideas on the table the group has the best chance of deciding on the very best one, regardless of its source. Those that hold onto the delusion that ideas are themselves valuable, and should be hoarded, are not working in the best interest of the group (which impacts their own success over time). 

Over the past several years I’ve responded to this belief in part by sharing a video by ze frank, a video blogger of some notoriety. Check out an edited (and thus safe for work) version here. Find the explicit version for the full effect, including ze frank singing his song “where the f*** do ideas come from”.

I’ll admit to falling prey to this delusion early on in my career. Then I met James Ernest, who instead of having a filing cabinet of ideas had a bunch of actual board games on the market. James showed me that valuing ideas didn’t lead to results, and that the real value was in being able to execute an idea. Thanks you James, for one of the many important lessons you taught me. 

In a future post I’ll dive into the fallacy that leadership has to have all of the ideas or answers, as well as discuss a model for how successful leaders can direct their people and organizations without falling prey to this fallacy. 


Written by joshuahoward

June 19, 2014 at 2:01 pm

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The Four Roles Leaders Need to Master

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Great leaders know that their teams need different things from them at different times. Even when the leader has a preferred style or approach, they often need to wear a different hat to best set their team up for success. While there are many possible variations these hats may take, over the years I’ve come to see that most of the various approaches can be categorized as one of four different roles, which I introduce below.

I’v presented this model at various conferences over the years, usually calling it the ‘Progression of Needs’ model. I don’t like that title anymore, for reasons I’ll discuss below. But first, I’ll introduce the model itself.

There are four main roles that a leader needs to be able to fill, to best set their teams up for success, briefly described below:

  • Teacherskill acquisition – sometimes leaders need to help their people obtain fundamental skills, whether the leader does the actual teaching or not. Leaders need to recognize that sometimes their people don’t have the right tool for a given challenge, and must help them acquire the right tool.
  • Coachskill application – sometimes people have the essential skills, but are unsure how to apply them. Coaches help people develop the skill of using their skills, and/or direct the team in application of these ‘meta skills’.
  • Mentorwisdom of experience – when what is lacking is the wisdom that comes from experience teams need the leader to take on the role of a Mentor. Mentors are not directive, using questions and advice to help the team discover the approach they will take.
  • Peer – independent perspective –for some situations the most valuable thing the leader can do is provide the perspective of someone not deep into the details, not with the intent of directing an agenda, but merely to point out what the team may have missed by being too close to the problem.

There is no one ‘right’ way to be a leader. True leadership is being what your team needs most to be successful. Not every leader is bound to be equally excellent in all of these roles, but the leader who would do what they do well instead of do what their team needs to succeed should reconsider why they are leading.

There are a variety of more formal models of leadership that capture this same idea. The above model, that I’ve been sharing with my teams for many years now, has been the most impactful for me personally. If you are interested in going into a much deeper model that is similar in approach check out Blanchard’s Situational Leadership model and related works. (I first articulated this model before I understood Blanchard’s, as has happened several times since I began to better understand this thing called ‘leadership’.)

In the past I called this the ‘Progression of Needs’ model, but I no longer like that title. It implies that the movement in the model is one way, from Teacher, to Coach, then Mentor, and then Peer. But many years of experience has taught me that the model does not move in one direction that its not even necessarily sequential.

Any given person, on any given task, at any given moment, may need the leader to take on a different role. The leader’s job is to be constantly assessing the needs of the organization/person, diagnosing what it needs, and putting that role into place. Even if that means switching from Coach to Peer (bypassing Mentor) or from Mentor to Teacher, etc. Instead of seeing the model as having a ‘start’ and an ‘end’, the mature leader knows that what their team needs can change moment to moment, and thus their need to change their approach moment to moment.

With this model both leaders and aspiring leaders have a clear framework to work from. It provides a common language for teams to use. Just as leaders should be working to understand what their team needs, so should members of the team. A healthy team knows how to ask for a Teacher, or how to tell a Peer they really need a Mentor, etc. When a healthy team has great leadership (from the leader and from within) its on its way towards becoming a truly high performing team.



Written by joshuahoward

June 10, 2014 at 11:06 am

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A Framework for Giving Effective Feedback

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This week’s post comes from an answer I recently provided to a question on Quora, about how to give negative feedback. The question was “How do skilled leaders give negative feedback?” Find the original question and the answer on Quora.

“Feedback is ALWAYS about helping someone improve. While sometimes that feedback re-enforces what led to a success, the feedback that helps correct for not achieving success is important and much more difficult to deliver. Feedback is a gift, and anyone can learn how to ensure that gift is received as positively as possible.

Below is a framework I’ve shared with my organizational managers over the years, about what makes for effective feedback. I don’t pretend this is everything there is to say on the subject of giving feedback, but its proven useful over the years to the many managers who I’ve mentored.

In my experience most people who ask about how to give negative feedback probably also need to understand what makes for effective positive feedback, thus the general applicability of the framework.

Effective feedback is:

  • Timely
  • About Specific Behavior
  • Proportional
  • Praise in public
  • Coach in private
  • Provides a path to improvement

See below for a bit more detail into each part of this framework, and how this framework connects to the world of video games.

Timely – the closer to the event the feedback is the better. When first helping new managers learn how to give effective feedback this is the most important lesson they must master, as many of the worst ways feedback can go poorly comes from that feedback not being given in a timely manner.

About Specific Behavior – if feedback is not about a specific behavior we as humans don’t know what to change in response to the feedback. Telling someone they have a bad attitude doesn’t give them any clue about what they can do to change your perception. Instead, telling someone ‘the sarcastic tone of your voice and that your answers are insufficiently considered tells me don’t appreciate that at this moment I need you to take this more seriously’ makes it very clear what behavior has led to the concern, and thus what they need to change. It may be obvious to some, but its worth remembering that providing feedback that doesn’t tell someone what they need to change won’t result in the desired change happening.

Proportional – feedback about ‘small wins’ need to be different than that of ‘big wins’, otherwise the organization begins to get confused about overall priorities. The science of reward schedules tells us that if we get the same response again and again, to different behavior, that response quickly loses any meaning.

Praise in Public – humans generally appreciate being celebrated publicly. Not only does it help the person getting the feedback, but it helps the rest of the group understand what kind of behavior is praise worthy. Note though, that its easy for public praise to look like managers are choosing favorites, so mature leadership knows how to spread the public praise around enough to avoid it being a problem.

Coach in Private – humans as a whole don’t enjoy getting shamed in front of other people. While the purpose of coaching should never be to shame (never, ever) its can be difficult to take criticism, and most of us would prefer to have the chance to initially react to that criticism in private.

Provides a path to improvement – along with needing to be about specific behavior, effective feedback should provide a ‘nudge’ about what to do next. The topic of how to give direction is itself a whole different topic, and how this nudge is given has a tremendous impact on how successful it will be. But, know that the ‘nudge’ usually needs to be just enough to let the recipient not feel lost. This applies whether the feedback is positive or critical, as even something that went well can likely get better, sometimes with just a little nudge in the right direction.

What do Video Games have to do with giving feedback? I’ve spent many years leading teams making video games, and sometimes the people in those teams have a hard time giving effective feedback. In teaching how to give effective feedback to employees I asked managers to think of their employees as ‘players’ in the ‘game’. By looking at the problem of feedback as a game design challenge some people (who worked in video games) found this framework a lot easier to understand.”

“Management as Game Design” is a talk I gave at various Game Developers Conferences over the past couple of years. Find the slide deck of the original presentation on Slideshare. Giving effective feedback was one of several examples the talk discussed. The core idea is that a management challenge can be seen as a game design problem, and how the game design solution can then often be used to deal with the management challenge.


Written by joshuahoward

June 5, 2014 at 1:50 pm

DSGA Applicant Review Findings

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(I’ll be bouncing between posts that are about leadership overall vs those that are specific to the DSGA – this is a post specific to the DSGA.)

After speaking with many of the applicants for the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy I came to a sobering realization – I would not have been accepted into this program when I was at the same place in my career as our applicants. Clearly the bar has risen significantly in the video game industry, and this is a good thing. This realization, as well as some of the other important lessons learned, is what I’ll share today.

Multi-discipline is more prevalent than expected.

Given that most existing video game development programs tend to reinforce the notion that one must specialize into one discipline to be successful in the video games industry, we expected most of our applicants to be single discipline. Instead what we found is that most of our applicants are multi-discipline, and have been frustrated in the past by being labeled as one thing or another. (This is in large part why my younger self would likely not be accepted. As a Producer/Designer I had no real programing skills, no art skills, no audio skills, no business development skills, and would have a hard time standing out amongst a group of applicants that are much more multi-discipline than I was.)

Having led both large and small studios I understand both sides of the specialization vs. generalization argument. Speaking to our applicants it was exciting to find that they tended to want to generalize early in their career, but that when it came to their long term aspirations the applicants were pretty evenly split about whether they ended up as a generalist or as a specialist. Curiously, even those that saw themselves specializing over time were sometimes not sure which of the various skills they might specialize in (art or programming, for example).

More Indies then Traditional.

Our applicants are falling into three broad categories with regards to their experience; those with student experience, those with traditional industry experience, and those with indie studio experience. It turns out we are getting more of the indie folks than we initially expected. We discovered that many of our applicants want their time at the DSGA to help them lead their own studio more successfully.

We expected those with traditional experience wanting the DSGA to help them grow in their careers, but didn’t expect so many of the more entrepreneurial type. This was an exciting realization, and has allowed us to improve our planned curriculum to better address the needs of those that are more indie minded, while continuing to address the more traditional career paths as well.

The traditional video games industry has a poor employment reputation.

Virtually every one of our applicants mentioned their trepidation at joining the video game industry, given all of the terrible things they hear about what the typical employee experience is like. A significant portion of the applicants I spoke to asked if we will talk about crunch. Many asked about diversity in the industry. Some wanted to hear my thoughts on some of the unscrupulous business practices the industry has seen in the last few years. Of those with industry experience many had stories of working for terrible bosses.

It was clear that while many are still willing to commit themselves to working in the video games industry they do so knowing they must navigate an industry known for how poorly it treats the typical employee. One direct response to this concern was how many of the applicants have decided not to pursue a traditional studio job, but to instead start or find a small independent studio. Whether true or not, the expectation seems to be that the large studio systems are the worst of the worst when it comes to employee treatment, and that a smaller studio would treat them better.

Given these concerns our goals with the DSGA seem ever more urgent. We will need to prepare our participant’s with the tools to survive in any organization they find themselves, and enable them to go beyond mere survival to improving their situation. Ultimately our goal is nothing less than to be a part of transforming the industry by creating a supply of leadership-ready individuals, who will enact the change they (and we) want to see.


Getting confirmation that many of the expectations we had about our likely participants proved valid was beneficial. It means much of the planning we have already done, and the overall approach we are taking, is in fact appropriate. The things we didn’t expect also turned out to be useful, helping us course correct our plans in small but important ways. Our belief in the need for the kind of program we are building was validated again and again. We are about half way through our applicant review and acceptance process, and I look forward to what additional lessons learned may still be out there for us to discover.

Written by joshuahoward

June 3, 2014 at 8:38 pm

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Leadership Defined & what a ‘Leadership Culture’ is

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I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership for many years now. In all that time I’ve been searching for a definition of leadership that accurately captured the essence of what I believe. This journey is partly why I started this blog; not because I thought I had all of the answers, but as a way to further explore the questions.

While I was interviewing with Warren Spector, a video game industry legend, for my current job with the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy, he asked me how I defined leadership. In retrospect I should have expected this question, and had a prepared answer ready to go. But the moment he asked I had an intense sense of uncertainty, knowing that my answer was likely the difference between getting my dream job or not. I knew that I needed to tell him my honest answer, simultaneously realizing that I hadn’t recently articulated my definition of leadership to anyone yet, and therefore had no idea how it might sound coming out of my mouth.

I take a non-traditional approach to defining leadership, I told him. Leadership, at its essence, isn’t about control or authority, or a title or a management position, or ‘being the boss’.

Leadership is committing oneself to the success of those around you, and acting on that commitment at every opportunity. (Warren smiled, and moved on to his next question. I got the job.)

Leadership is an attitude, but not just an attitude. Leadership is action, but not selfish action. Leadership is not just in intent, but also in a toolset to bring about the intended change.

Motivation, vision, conflict management, decision making – all of these are aspects of traditional leadership, but unless unified by an unrelenting commitment to the success of those around you these traditional qualities are insufficient.

One reason why I love this definition of leadership is that it makes it clear that everyone can be a leader, not just the person at the top of the organization. When this idea is instilled in every part of your organization, and everyone is provided the support and opportunity to develop themselves as a leader, a ‘leadership culture’ has taken hold in the organization. Teams that live the ‘leadership culture’ are more productive, more resilient, and more fulfilling to be a part of. (A future post will dive into what the research tells us make teams great and how great teams are a significant driver of business success, as it’s a whole topic on its own.)

If someone truly is committed to the success of those around them they are ready to accept the lessons about how to best do deliver on this commitment. The DSGA will attempt to teach these lessons, and I intend to blog my way through it, sharing what we are learning about teaching these lessons with everyone.

Next up, a discussion of what we’ve been learning as we go through the process of reviewing applications for participation in the DSGA. Its not turning out to be what Warren or I expected; its already so much more interesting than that.

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May 28, 2014 at 9:07 am

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Introducing the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy

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For the past several years I’ve spoken to a number of audiences about various video game development topics. A typical opening for me is to mention whatever my current day job is, perhaps helping company X deliver product Y. But, I tell the audience, what I really do, what I’m really passionate about, is ‘getting teams to great by creating a leadership culture’. Different studios, companies, products, business models, platforms, even countries, in the end don’t really change the core set of methods I’ve relied upon time and again to ‘get teams to great’.

Now, for the first time, I can honestly tell an audience that my passion for getting teams to great is my day job. I recently joined the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy, at the University of Texas at Austin, as the 2nd member of the three-person team building the program from scratch.

Whereas there are many great programs focused on teaching core game development skills, the DSGA will instead focus on developing leadership and management skills for the video game industry. By taking those with existing video game development experience and putting them through an intense 9 month program the DSGA intends to prepare the next generation of industry leaders with the skills and experience they will need to succeed. To find out more about the DSGA overall check it our website at

I intend to use There Is No Them as a place to share how the DSGA is developing. This blog has always been a way for me to explore some of the leadership and management ideas that I’ve been stewing on for years. Now that my day job is also about leadership and management development I’m committing to getting back to more regularly posting.

Up next I’ll discuss what leadership has come to mean to me, what I mean by the phrase ‘leadership culture’, and how a ‘leadership culture’ is the key to great teams and great products.



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May 22, 2014 at 6:14 pm

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The THUD at the Game Developers Conference March 2014

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Several years after its initial introduction at GDC in Austin, I had the chance to share The THUD with the much larger audiences of the main Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. To a standing room only crowd I shared how important leadership’s job is to show ‘what better looks like’, and the role The THUD can have in doing so. 

It was great to speak to so many people, and to hear from many of them their plans to take various parts of The THUD and use it within their teams. 

My thanks to the many folks who have contacted me since The THUD’s original introduction. Its great to get feedback of all sorts. Please share The THUD with your management and your co-workers, so we can further spread the usefulness of it as a tool. Know I’d love to hear from you and how you are using The THUD. I’d also like to know if you are looking for other tools to help improve the quality of leadership and management in your organization, so I can focus my future efforts in those directions. 

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March 25, 2014 at 12:44 am

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