Innovation is key to success in this fast changing world? Don’t believe me? Ask the former executives of Xerox, Kodak, Nokia and Blockbuster. Interestingly enough, Xerox was the first company to come up with the personal computer (the Xero Alto in 1973) and Kodak the first to develop the digital camera. Blockbuster had the opportunity to buy Netflix but didn’t see the potential in their business model. You can say these companies believed in product innovation, but what they lacked was an innovative approach to business..

Coming up with new products and services are important for growth and survival, but it is useless if that same company lacks the culture to implement innovation and be the catalyst for change. Essentially, that is what sealed the fate of those companies mentioned above.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have the likes of Google, Apple, Facebook, who were not the pioneers in their industry and yet are standing before us as giants. Apple’s first PC (Apple Lisa) was very much a copy of Xerox’s Alto, the Iphone was an evolution of the Blackberry (remember that one) and before Facebook we had Orkut and Myspace.

What is the difference between these companies? There are many, but one key difference is their simplistic, yet innovative approach to work. Google has flocks of candidates applying to work there because it prides itself in its simplistic and innovative approach to getting work done. Every year, it is recognised as one of the best places to work. If you stop and think, Google didn’t come up with anything new. They didn’t come up with the search engine. Remember Excite and Netscape? All they did was come up with a search engine that was clean and simple to use. Google bought Youtube, attempted to establish a social media network and failed, and Android is an alternative to the already existing IOS. Yet Google is one of the most valuable companies in the world. Why? Because they attract the talent needed to keep driving change and build upon existing innovation.

Same goes for Facebook. They purchased WhatsApp and their social network platform is an evolution of Orkut and Myspace, which peaked in popularity way before Facebook became mainstream.

Deep-rooted in the culture of these companies is a commitment to simplicity. That simplicity comes in the form of usage, options and design. They keep making stuff that is either easier to use, easier to choose or looks great.

If innovation is the pathway to business success, then simplicity needs to become part of the company’s values and principles. It needs to extend beyond products and services and into the day-to-day routine of how the business is run.

If an organisation wants to innovate and drive change, but it is not able to do so, the easiest way to diagnose the problem is by looking at how their employees spend most of their time. I bet it is meetings, reports and e-mails. Most people spend their time drowned in mundane tasks that are often self-created complexities that prevent them from getting to meaningful work that will truly make a difference. This is what Lisa Bodell, CEO of Futurethink, calls “busy work.” In her TEDx talk*, she goes on to explain that companies put more value on managing and not leading; process over culture and doing over thinking. In a relevant example it looks far better to be seen entering and exiting meetings and replying straightaway to emails than to be caught looking at the ceiling whilst thinking of ways of improving products and services. When people approach us when we are reflecting, they often ask, “What are you doing?” The better question would be, “What are you thinking?” Time to think and reflect is what will lead to innovation and change.

Some companies that drown their employees in meetings, emails and PowerPoints think getting a room, painting its walls red and throwing a few colourful puff sofas is driving a culture of creativity and innovation. I say they are burying their heads in the sand and not really getting to the nub of the issue.

Effective innovation at its core is simple. Simplicity in how a business operates will be reflected in its products and services. Busy work needs to be substituted by thinking. Funky rooms need to be complemented by pragmatic ways of working. Want to see change, start by asking, “What are you thinking?”