Formulating An Innovation Partnership For Results

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We recently had the opportunity to talk with Graham Milner, a 25-year veteran of WD-40, and most recently the EVP of Global Innovation who led WD-40’s Team Tomorrow (a team dedicated to innovation) to talk about his work with the brand and the benefits of working with a passionate innovation partner. Graham worked with Bulldog Drummond on a number of major innovation projects, helping to launch Specialist, the first WD-40 branded line extension in the history of the company and leading the creation of WD-40 Bike a new-to-world product platform for cyclists and mountain bikers.

Graham shared the three ingredients that made the eight-year innovation partnership with Bulldog Drummond a success; Trust, creativity, and separating innovation from the day-to-day.

“Trust is built and maintained by many small actions over time”

From Graham’s perspective, it takes time to understand a brand, the people and the challenges that need to be overcome to achieve its goals. When the innovation partner and the brand partner work together over time a couple things occur, both of which help the innovation process:

  • The innovation partner learns more about the brand and the business and can frame and adapt its innovation process in a way that is likely to fit the brand and business.
  • Mutual respect increases with time and repetition of projects and assignments. Familiarity breeds confidence and context.

“Creativity is vital in solving complex problems”

According to Graham, creativity is the driving force of innovation and the fuel needed to look at things from a different perspective. By framing discussions in a variety of ways and by asking the right questions, conversations are guided that spark new ideas and bubble up to solve specific problems.

“Bulldog combines pragmatic, down-to-earth design thinking with a proven, common sense methodology. They understand that time and resources are valuable and design each engagement to deliver results in the most effective and collaborative way possible…

Bulldog’s ability to physically frame a room for creative output had repeated impact because they create environments that enhanced creativity and help to frame the discussion of the day. Which is why innovation workshops are great venues that unlock the internal creativity that lives inside of companies.”

Innovation workshops are very special” they are purposefully designed to break down barriers and take people out of their comfort zones.

“Although creativity is vital to fuel and produce new and disruptive ideas, innovation is dependent on that creativity being harnessed into action and specific implementation.”

“The value of an outside perspective is invaluable”

You need to separate innovation from the day-to-day. Oftentimes the best ideas are those on the end of your nose and the ones you just don’t have the time to explore or develop. “You can’t have the people in charge of today also have responsibility for tomorrow. The urgent always gets in front of the important.” — Don Soderquist, Chairman Emeritus of Wal-Mart

Bringing folks that sit outside of the decision-making table into the decision-making process can be really additive for your brand. Start the conversation, invite the janitor, the franchisee, the client, the freelance photographer you worked with last year and try to understand their unique points-of-view — oftentimes they identify problems and solutions that you may not see.

“The outside perspective, which an innovation partner brings, is vital to fresh thinking, challenges the status quo and drives ongoing cross-functional creative collaboration.”

Graham’s Uncommon advice for formulating a results-driven innovation partnership:

  • Look for innovation partners who demonstrate a sound grasp of the brand, or an ability to learn it quickly from the brand team.
  • Look for partners who recognize that their value comes in part from being “unencumbered by the realities of your business” as my colleague Mark Koob, used to say.
  • Do business with people you like and respect. If you get along well chances are better that when alternate viewpoints surface they will be looked at and challenged in a constructive way, and that will produce value.

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