The Tools of Conversation

Tools of Conversation

Innovation: Creating Creative Thinkers

Scholars: Ryan Quinn, Tony Golsby-Smith

Business leaders who say that they welcome new ideas and innovative strategies often speak a language that all but guarantees the opposite. It is the language of accounting and bureaucracy, which, like any tongue, does not just express what we are thinking, but also shapes and defines it.

Communication is not cosmetic, argue Darden Assistant Professor Ryan Quinn and Batten Fellow Tony Golsby-Smith. It is at the very core of the leader's job. To promote innovation, business leaders must develop a new fluency and become familiar with some rhetorical tools that can transform strategy-planning sessions dominated by data and analysis into exploratory conversations that elicit ideas that may otherwise lie dormant.

Drawing on their work facilitating strategic conversations in organizations and their research on rhetoric, Quinn and Golsby-Smith have identified linguistic obstacles to innovation and the rhetorical devices that can overcome them. The power and centrality of language in leadership and strategy has long been a major theme for both researchers. Quinn is the author, with Robert Quinn, of Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Situation, which outlines the psychological state that can help leaders exert a positive and productive influence  for example, focusing on purpose instead of on problems, and on others instead of oneself. (For Quinn's blog on these ideas, visit

Golsby-Smith, founder and CEO of the Australia-based consultancy Second Road, works with companies to promote strategic thinking and communication, and the design of environments that promote new ideas.

Language represents a worldview. Accounting, for instance, casts people as costs and resources as scarce; it holds that the executive function is to analyze data and then choose among predetermined options. This language has for centuries enabled organizations to function smoothly, but in its bias for order, measurement and data, it is not well suited to innovation, which depends on the free and seemingly chaotic mixing of ideas from different domains.

Bureaucracy, another obstacle to innovation, is also rooted in language. "When the words that we write and say must be subordinated to the positions we hold, the paperwork we must fill out, our limited divisions of labor, and the constraints of political opinion, our language starts to limit  and even dehumanize  our thinking," write Quinn and Golsby-Smith. If you speak only the language of bureaucracy, you may not be open to others ways of communicating about or even conceiving of value creation.

The solution to these language problems, argue Quinn and Golsby-Smith, is itself linguistic. Innovative strategies arise not from the analysis of piles of data, but from the combining of ideas. This requires conversations among people from different domains that are guided by rhetorical devices. They define rhetoric, as Aristotle and other ancient philosophers did, as the use of language both for persuasion and for collective thinking  a definition premised on the inseparability of speech and thought.

The researchers have identified five rhetorical devices that can shape conversations that are both exploratory and focused: transforming participants into "authors" who create strategy instead of "readers" who merely study and critique ideas that are presented to them; creating and engaging an audience through a conversational, unscripted approach; crafting strategy not as a plan but as an argument that incorporates a sense of vision and purpose; engaging in a joint writing process in which every participant in the strategy conversation becomes an author; and using various techniques to encourage free thinking.

These devices can help guide strategic conversations in all kinds of organizations, Quinn and Golsby-Smith have found, and the benefits include even more than promising new strategies. Conversations in which engaged participants together craft a strategic argument introduce a new language to an organization, one that can inspire passion  an undeniably precious asset.

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