Why Innovation Isn’t a Resource Issue

Why Innovation Isn’t a Resource Issue

Because of the resources innovation requires, most organizations leave more ideas on the table then they'd prefer. Their people don't have the time, budget, or skills to explore them all. The thing is, even the most inventive organizations face the same challenges as everybody else. But these creative companies aren’t held back by those challenges for one simple reason—they approach innovation from a different perspective.

Companies that dominate at innovating have leaders who know how to tap the best people for specific problems. These leaders understand that innovation isn’t a resource issue; it’s an access issue.

Perhaps one of the best demonstrations of this comes from NASA, America’s space agency.

Budget slashed 80%, yet breakthroughs soared

John Winsor, Founder and CEO at Open Assembly, is a global authority on open talent. He works with global organizations to drive innovation in their talent strategies; NASA is one of those organizations.

In an exclusive interview with Upwork, he shared how soon after Dr. Jeffrey Davis became Director of Human Health and Performance and Chief Medical Officer at NASA, Davis’s budget was slashed by 80%. Yet with just a fraction of the resources, Davis was expected to maintain the same imperative: keep astronauts alive in space.

One of NASA’s most urgent problems at the time was predicting solar flares. These eruptions from the surface of the sun are millions of times more energetic than a volcano, and generate enough radiation to kill any astronauts unlucky enough to be caught by them while working outside the International Space Station (ISS).

NASA had spent 10 years, at $2 million a year, for eight helio-physicists (people who study the Sun and how it influences space) to solve the problem. After 10 years of intense focus, the scientists produced an algorithm that could predict solar flares an hour and a half in advance, with 50% accuracy. That was good, but not good enough to give astronauts sufficient time to return to an airlock, crawl through it, remove all their gear, and move to a secure part of the station. Plus, at 50% accuracy, the risks were still uncomfortably high.

Without money to hire more helio-physicists, Dr. Davis reached out to Harvard Professor Karim Lakhani to help crowdsource an algorithm that could provide astronauts with more lead time. In 30 days, a retired cell phone engineer in New Hampshire came up with an algorithm that predicted solar flares eight hours in advance with 85% accuracy.

There’s a saying: not all of the best talent in the world works for your company. NASA’s situation proved it. A retired cell phone engineer spent $30,000 in 30 days to solve a problem that NASA couldn’t solve after investing 10 years and $20 million with the most highly trained minds in the world.

Enlightened and humbled by the result, NASA created what is now called the Laboratory for Innovation Science at Harvard. Through the lab, NASA spends around $175 million a year on open talent to solve really difficult problems.

Shifting perspectives

NASA’s epiphany wasn’t that they needed a lab. It was that they could innovate faster—and at a higher level—through a new model of accessing talent that was more fluid than their old model of talent acquisition.

Business leaders often get stuck in the old belief that when they need a specific skill, they must acquire it by hiring a full time employee with that skill. The problem is, when you only see talent as something you acquire, your ability to innovate becomes constrained by budget, time, and risk.

If you need to hire someone, do you have the budget to add headcount? Can you wait the months it may take to fill a job? Do you have enough work requiring that skill to justify adding a full time role?

Answering no to any of those questions may see your best ideas kicked into a black hole of things you’ll “get to later.” But when you shift to thinking of skills as something you can access instead of acquire, possibilities open up.

For example, when the engineering team at PGA of America used to come up with a new idea, they’d excitedly discuss its potential but knew the idea wouldn’t go any further than that lone discussion. Team members were so busy maintaining their daily work plan that no one had time to explore anything outside of it. But that changed when they learned to access skills on demand.

Now when the team has an idea, they hop on Upwork, the world’s largest talent marketplace, to contract an independent developer to test proof of concept. Through Upwork, the team can find the right person—including those with tough-to-find skills like AWS and React.js—within days instead of weeks, and at a 50% savings compared to their other options. Only when an idea proves it’ll extend capabilities, will the team invest internal resources into it.

By accessing skills, the engineering team created an efficient and cost-effective way to test proof of concept while employees remain focused on higher-value projects. “Independent talent changed how we handle development,” says George Whitaker, Director of Software Engineering at PGA of America. “They gave us the confidence to test new ideas and opened our minds to what’s possible.”

Independent talent changed how we handle development. They gave us the confidence to test new ideas and opened our minds to what’s possible.”
—George Whitaker, Director of Software Engineering at PGA of America

In a nutshell, Whitaker and his team upped their creativity and inventiveness by becoming adept at skill sourcing—a term coined by Tim Sanders, VP of Client Initiatives at Upwork.

Skill sourcing enables teams to access the people they need to build out ideas, complete initiatives at a higher level, and push the boundaries on what’s possible. Think of skill sourcing as the shinier, updated, more agile version of outsourcing.

Skill sourcing genius

Skill sourcing enables you to maintain the ultimate flexibility and control over what you achieve, allowing your teams to directly source the talent they need, whenever they need them. It’s like having the power to assemble your ideal superhero team to promptly handle hairy issues and jump on opportunities.

Unlike traditional outsourcing, employees don’t see skill sourcing as a threat to their jobs. Instead, they welcome bringing in independent professionals because they’re perceived as resources who enable employees to do their jobs better.

When asked why she feels comfortable contracting on-demand professionals, Liz Elliott, Technical Project Manager at PGA of America, said, “Having high-quality talent available lets me focus on high-visibility projects while knowing the other projects are getting done and their stakeholders are receiving the support they need.”

Adam Hawes, Executive Creative Director at Qualcomm, sees skill sourcing as a way to ensure an employee’s job security. He provided this example:

Now we can augment skills instead of staff. With a little bit of project management time, you can increase the production of what used to be 5 projects a month to 10 or 15 or 20. Then, your job security is solidified, because you can’t replace someone who is turning around 20 projects a month.”

Here are ways business leaders use skill sourcing to boost innovation.

Avoid reinventing the wheel

A global IT company wanted to improve a platform feature for its customers. The company’s engineering team concluded the problem required a data scientist to create an algorithm and an API developer to integrate it. They didn’t have the resources internally, so they posted the project on Upwork. Within two days, a freelancer solved the problem for $150.

“I thought our problem was unique to our industry, but it wasn’t,” admitted the company’s VP of strategic initiatives. “A developer from Seattle knew exactly what to do because he solved the same problem for other companies and told us we just needed a data classification algorithm, which he had already written.”

As more teams began skill sourcing, the practice became a tool for leapfrogging inventiveness. The VP explained:

Innovating with help from independent talent is more than a cost-savings play. You’re tapping into a global brain trust who can fast-track your projects and improve outcomes. I think that's what companies miss out on when they don’t tap independent talent. It’s not just the expertise, it’s that they’ve solved your problem a thousand times, you get quality work and many times, they even give you a tip or two because they know things that you haven’t even thought about.”

Leverage diversity

“Marketing is a game of diversity: The more diverse mentalities you have, the more ideas you’ll have, and the better stories you’ll tell. The better the stories, the greater the impact will be on your brand,” said Moadh Bukhash, Chief Marketing Officer at Emirates NBD, the largest banking group in the Middle East.

Marketing is also about speed. If it takes you weeks to act on something, you’ve probably missed the boat. That’s why when Bukhash has a project, he logs into Upwork to assemble a team of creatives from around the world. As a result, he gains a competitive advantage:

Now we’re able to do things in 24 hours or less. It’s almost immediate: If I have an idea, and I know what the job requires, then at most, it’ll take me a day to find the right talent to help us. When you have access to millions of talented freelancers and small agencies around the world, you’re increasing the probability that you’ll come up with something great, something unique, that will cut through the noise.”

Tap regional experts

In the past, when U.S. based Amway needed to create a global video series, they’d contract an American creative agency and fly production teams to each location. Not only was the process expensive, but it also had another flaw: “Sometimes when you do creative, even through big agencies in big cities, the creative would still tend to skew Western,” observed Adrienne Young, the lead art director at Amway. “We needed to rethink the way we approached production, including the way we build teams and engage with agencies.”

She gained that opportunity when tasked to create a video series that spanned five countries—during the height of the COVID travel lockdown. Young contracted a small video agency, Hoozens, through Upwork. The agency’s founder, Ben Tyson, handled all aspects of the production and process, including sourcing and onboarding videographers in each market. “We [sent each videographer] a production pack to inspire the right questions and the right thoughts in terms of how they're going to shoot this, but without limiting their creativity. And ultimately, to get team members to really care about telling the story.”

Tyson’s nimble approach delivered the project in three months. Building on-demand teams within each location saved $20,000 per video on average.

The videos resonated with local audiences so deeply that they generated a significant boost in organic traffic and new followers. “Now we see that we can go to Upwork for exactly what we need, no matter what market the project is in, or what the scope requires,” said Young. “It has changed the way we get work done every day.”

Increase your velocity

When Flexera gained a new CEO, the company  couldn’t keep up with the resulting rise in hiring needs. “As we continue to grow and move faster, we found traditional staffing agencies aren’t a fit for Flexera. They can’t offer the breadth of skills we need, and as quickly as we need to keep up with market changes,” said Elizabeth Lages, SVP of People and Culture.

CEO Jim Ryan decided it was time for a new company-wide workforce strategy: Make skill sourcing through Upwork such a regular way of working that it was “part of the water system.” Ryan understood the company’s competitive advantage was inextricably linked to talent access:

In talking to other C-level executives, my message is clear: Using Upwork isn’t so much about cost, as it is about fast access to ready-made, cutting-edge talent. Having access to an unprecedented pool of super talented professionals enables us to increase our velocity, and as a result, our competitive posture in the market.“

Signs of the times

Optimizing talent access may require that you adjust workflows and get employees accustomed to working in hybrid teams with both employees and independent talent. The transition takes time and intentional effort upfront, which tempts some business leaders to stick with old-fashioned hiring practices even if it means leaving some great ideas unexplored.

These leaders may not want to change, but the world has. How you resource creativity may have worked in the past, but you may notice it’s not enough today, and it likely may be fruitless in the future. There are two major reasons for this.

The first reason is the talent shortage. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows there are about 1.9 jobs available for every person looking for one. If you’re hiring in this shortage, plan for about 60 days to fill a role—longer if you’re looking for someone with in-demand skills.

Although some industries, such as tech, feel the labor pinch more than others, our latest Future Workforce Report shows most hiring managers (60%) are suffering.


Despite the number of unfilled roles, more and more companies are still making advances by skill sourcing. Most of those hiring managers (79%) say independent talent enable them to be more innovative.

Future Workforce Report

The other major reason why the traditional way of acquiring skills may fall short is because more of the professionals you’re looking for—the best engineers, scientists, AI specialists, block chain experts, marketers—are choosing to work as freelancers.

Our Freelance Forward survey shows people with advanced degrees freelance the most. In fact, more than half (51%) of workers with postgraduate degrees freelance.

Freelance Forward Graph

In working with NASA, John Winsor observed that, “Most of the best scientists and these kinds of thinkers in the world want to freelance. One of the reasons that's so attractive is they are pushing the limits of a subject and they want to work on a variety of subjects.”

His remark is supported by Upwork research showing most professionals (73%) freelance so they can do work that they find fulfilling.  In the article Why More In-Demand Professionals Rather Freelance Than Get a “Real Job”, fractional CMO Yunche Wilson explains:

In a traditional job, you get capped at a certain level and often remain within the same industry. When you’re freelancing, you have the ability to direct your growth and work across different sectors. So it gives you a breadth of experience that’s very unique compared to most VPs or CMOs out there in the marketplace.

Don’t blame budgets

Budgets are tightening as organizations prepare for a recession. But you’ll find there’s still money for skill sourcing when you know where to look.

“Managers think they don't have the budget for freelancers, but they do,” said a deputy CIO at a leading university. “For example, the university has 700 IT employees just in their central IT operations, and 15% of the roles are unfilled at all times. So, I told teams to use Upwork at any time, because they have money that’s budgeted and not spent. If you hire someone later on, that’s great. You just wrap up the contract with the freelancer.”

Skill sourcing also enables you to stretch every dollar. Talent is traditionally a fixed cost, but when you work with professionals on an as-needed basis, you create a variable cost for talent.

“Upwork lets me be more strategic with my budget,” said Rajneesh Sehgal, Director of Engineering at Flexera. “Many times, I don’t need an employee, I just need someone for 3 months. Instead of locking up my budget with a single hire, I can break it up to get several people with different skills and get several specialized projects done.” Skill sourcing also removed the need for Sehgal’s team members to change their focus from what they’re working on to quickly learn something new. As a result, they cut project times in half and ship out features faster.

Speed up cycles of innovation

The traditional way of solving a problem is first to decide who you need to help solve it. Then pull people from various parts of the organization to contribute their skills, experience, and perspectives. But when you approach innovation in this conventional way, you soon run into resource limitations.

According to a Gartner survey, resource constraints can be partially blamed for why nearly half of product launches fall behind schedule, which increases risk of failure.

For example, if you don’t have the right skills in-house, employees may be overwhelmed trying to handle something they’ve never done before. Or you may have the right person who’s happy to help—once they finish the 30 other projects they’re working on. And there’s a risk of churning out homogenous ideas as you tap the same people over and over again.

Skill sourcing enables you to overcome common resource challenges. “When you put outcomes and tasks first, then think of the talent required to accomplish those, friction gets removed from the system and the company can really focus on the things that it needs to focus on,” said John Winsor. “[Skill sourcing] enables you to have more money to spend on more things. It speeds up cycles of innovation.


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Author Spotlight

Why Innovation Isn’t a Resource Issue
Brenda Do

Brenda Do is a direct-response copywriter who loves to create content that helps businesses engage their target audience—whether that’s through enticing packaging copy to a painstakingly researched thought leadership piece. Brenda is the author of "It's Okay Not to Know"—a book helping kids grow up confident and compassionate.

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