Opening Doors: How Businesses are Finding Innovation in Unexpected Places

11/03/2019 4 min read
Collette Parker Lead Editor of, Collette has been a member of the remote talent economy for 20 years, as an enterprise business reporter for TIME magazine and the author of five business books.
  • Companies are increasingly reaching outside of their industry for talent.
  • Open platforms are proving to be successful at finding people with the ability to translate solutions from one domain to problems of another domain.
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Transformational technologies are all around us -- from digital home assistants and self-driving cars to artificial intelligence and gene editing.

Markets and technologies are now changing at a rate that businesses can’t ignore. In fact, it’s getting difficult for companies to even keep up with the skill training necessary. The average lifespan of a Fortune 500 company has shrunk from 60 years down to less than 20 years. More than half of the companies that made it onto the Fortune 500 in the past 15 years no longer exist.

Luckily, technology is also transforming how we work, opening up the gig economy and distributed teams. In order to stay competitive, companies need to take advantage of the diversity of talent this new economy offers. “Freelance, on-demand talent contributes to greater innovation in companies through the cross-pollination of ideas,” says John Windsor, executive-in-residence at Harvard Business School’s Laboratory for Innovation Science (LISH) and founder and CEO of Open Assembly.

“A lot of the work we're doing at Harvard and the Laboratory of Innovation is really based on the fact that sometimes the most powerful knowledge is adjacent knowledge,” says Windsor. For example, an incoming freshman at Berkeley won $100,000 helping solve a major problem for the Department of Homeland Security, developing a more successful machine learning algorithm for their passenger-screening machines in airports. It wasn’t because he had domain knowledge of machine learning and AI, says Windsor. In fact, his experience was in building games. He took on the challenge as a way to better understand machine learning. He ended up using his game-building skills to create a bigger set of data to train his algorithm, which resulted in a high-performing algorithm.

The concept of “open” problem solving is unlocking possibilities. “Open” simply refers to reaching outside of your organization for talent. Accessing an open platform--whether a freelance platform like Toptal or Upwork, or a crowdsourcing platform like Topcoder, HeroX, or Innocentive--means accessing the global human network. This network can make connections across industries to provide unique expertise to solve hard problems or perform emerging, specialized work.

Consider these additional examples of open innovation:

  • NASA was able to increase the accuracy of a solar flare prediction algorithm when a retired cellphone engineer (with an unused minor in heliophysics) applied signal-processing techniques. Because the radiation from solar flares can be dangerous for astronauts on a spacewalk, predicting these flares before they happen is important. He applied his knowledge from the communications industry to extract signals from noise to the flare prediction problem. This new approach resulted in an eight-hour prediction, which was four times better than NASA's existing two-hour prediction capability.
  • Automated milking machines from dairy farms were the foundation for the sensory system used by the auto industry when they were designing automated doors closing in minivans. Engineers designing the early versions of automatic doors that could detect people's arms and legs when closing had very distinct detection specifications for that sensor. They found that the technology already existed in automated milking machines.
  • Subsea7, a European company that specializes in underwater construction, was using technology for its pipeline bundle inspection that required a van-sized piece of hardware to be lowered by a ship. This process cost over $1 million per day to operate and took two weeks to scan one segment of the pipeline. Looking outside their industry for an improved solution, they found technology from the mining industry that enabled a handheld unit that could scan the same pipeline segment in two hours.

Innovations tend to live outside the status quo. But traditional corporate structures reinforce working with internal team members, rather than looking for outside talent. While many companies have invested in innovation training programs to leverage the creativity latent in their workforce, it’s not enough. Technology and the associated skills are changing at a rate faster than corporate training can contend with. The pool of gig and freelance talent almost always includes people with the latest and greatest expertise. Open platforms provide companies access to talent skilled in new technologies who have an understanding of ways to apply them.

A Harvard study found that when an open platform was used in solving complex problems, the solution already existed 75% of the time. And 70% of the time, the best solution came from another domain. This is where cross-industry building block technologies come in. There's so much technology being developed using similar building blocks like machine learning, open software, and the Internet of Things (IoT), it’s likely a solution in one industry can be adapted to solve a problem in another industry. Open platforms are proving to be really good at finding people with the ability to translate solutions from one domain to problems of another domain.

“It’s really shifting the paradigm,” says Windsor. “Instead of bringing on full-time employees, or asking our existing people, we need to find really talented freelancers to fill in the gaps to bring new kinds of creativity. We need other kinds of domain experts that offer a unique perspective on our problems. Have an open mind about the kind of skills you might need to solve a problem.”

The bottom line is that while “open” may be new and bring challenges, it also provides some unmatched capabilities that are quickly becoming crucial for organizational survival.

Collette Parker Lead Editor of, Collette has been a member of the remote talent economy for 20 years, as an enterprise business reporter for TIME magazine and the author of five business books.