The Dewey Decimal System, And Where Innovation Goes Wrong

The innovation paradox is the need to find answers we didn’t know we needed, from places we didn’t know to look–the very antithesis of what we often do.

The Dewey Decimal System, And Where Innovation Goes Wrong

When I first read a manuscript of Grant McCracken‘s Culturematic some time back, two sentences struck me so deeply that I highlighted them and simultaneously wrote a note on the table of contents: “Blame the Dewey Decimal system! It clusters like things together.”


The thought has been with me ever since: cropping up when I turn to the same old sources to seek an answer, echoing in my thoughts when people dismiss an answer’s relevance because it’s not in their field.

A similar message echoed in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln is a leader whose way of thinking isn’t constrained Dewey Decimal System-like in desire to categorize the world into knowable divisions and categories. (Perhaps it’s worth noting that Dewey didn’t create this system until a decade after Lincoln’s death.) In one of the most pivotal scenes of the film, as Lincoln is deciding to end the war or push forward with getting the 13th Amendment passed through Congress, he put his conundrum aside to talk with a telegraph operator who studied engineering. Soon, Lincoln is reflecting on Euclid’s mechanical law about equality in measurement and reaching the “eureka” moment that moving forward with passage of the 13th Amendment is his answer.

Grant’s exclamation about the Dewey Decimal system comes from talking with physicist Steve Crandall about Bell Labs. Steve said that people hunkered down in the lab doing research at all hours, but often they reached the revelation they needed when they went out to lunch and started talking with other people about things seemingly unrelated to the research problem they were trying to solve.

However, it’s not the “aha! moment” in the shower, where taking your mind off something finally gets you to your answer in isolation. No, it’s more than that. In fact, the answer goes even beyond Lincoln’s conversation with the engineer, since it only acted to trigger something seemingly unrelated that Lincoln already knew. No, the sort of answer Grant is talking about requires finding information you don’t already have, in places you don’t normally look. It’s a process that requires interaction with culture, with people who are thinking about something you don’t know and that may seem unrelated on the surface. Grant calls it serendipity in action, the answer to the “innovation paradox,” which states, “We need ideas we can’t possibly guess we need. We must canvass concepts that are entirely unrelated to our present problem set. Only thus do we give our deeper powers of pattern recognition a chance to work.”

Culturematic‘s declaration about the Dewey Decimal system is positioned in Grant’s criticism of a current business obsession of innovation that has corporatized it, domesticated it even, moving “innovation” from an intense curiosity and spirit of experimentation toward a systematic, managed, tiered, orderly, and controlled way of understanding the world. In a world where experimentation and innovation is seen only logically, unrelated knowledge is noise, and conversation about anything other than the problem at hand is a distraction.

The “Dewey Decimal problem” extends far beyond narrow-minded innovation labs, though. It inhibits the everyday innovation of everyone in the workplace. Companies consider employees’ engaging with the culture outside their walls as “waste.” (See one 2010 British study which said employees’ engagement on social network sites during work hours was costing the economy “as much as $22 billion.”) An extreme idea of production sees anything not focused on the explicit task at hand as a loss in efficiency and “free time” as the enemy.


It’s hard to imagine true innovation surviving in such an environment. And, even when companies don’t hold to such extreme views about efficiency, there’s not much room to place value on listening to culture or seeking serendipity. Even companies that see some value in paying attention to what’s happening in the world, unrelated to the explicit task their workers have before them, can’t get beyond expecting their employees to cram a bit of cultural learning in the 15 minutes between appointments on their Outlook calendar.

If we want a workplace culture where our employees can engage in pattern recognition to solve the problems they face, we have to encourage an environment of listening, learning, and creative reasoning…to encourage critical thinking over tactical execution (a problem that runs particularly deep in the marketing/communications world). For instance, back in November, we organized a small conference at MIT called Futures of Entertainment, bringing together marketers, media industries professionals, consultants, academics, entrepreneurs, activists, and a range of other professionals from a diversity of industries/disciplines to see what we could learn from one another. Afterward, some attendees professed that they almost hadn’t come because they didn’t work in “entertainment.” Instead, as Doug Williams at Innovation Excellence writes, the conference focused on innovation not by being “about” it but rather engaging in innovation as a mindset. As Doug says in his conclusion about where to go for inspiration and new ideas, “The choices may be less obvious than you think.”

Of course, it’s not the Dewey Decimal System itself that’s to blame; after all, there is value to applying some sense of order to the world. Rather, it’s the dominance such a system starts to have. We create a model, then forget it was a model we created at all. Soon, every decision has to be made by the Big Data analytics system we set up, every decision governed by the customer segmentation profiles we brainstormed. But we can’t let categorization rule us, and we can’t limit our inquiry only to where we know to look. Otherwise, we’ll never overcome the innovation paradox.

–Sam Ford is director of digital strategy for Peppercomm and coauthor of the forthcoming book Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. He is also a Futures of Entertainment Fellow, a research affiliate of the program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, and an instructor with Western Kentucky University’s Popular Culture Studies program. Sam was named 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year by Bulldog Reporter and serves on the Membership Ethics Advisory Panel for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. He is also co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.

[Image: Flickr user Caro Wallis]

About the author

Sam Ford is Director of Audience Engagement with Peppercomm, an affiliate with both MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing and Western Kentucky University, and co-author of Spreadable Media (2013, NYU Press). He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and a board liaison to WOMMA's Ethics Committee.