How to Select the Right Freelancer for the Work
Leading public and private sector organizations are increasing their dependence on external expertise. The benefits are compelling: increased flexibility, speed, and innovation as well as cost management. As organizations confront new competitive challenges and disruptive technologies, an agile approach to talent provides both a means of rapid strategic change, as well as a way to increase strategic capability. But the selection of external talent—project-based consultants, technical advisors, and gigsters—is often challenging.
Selection 101 is obvious: expertise, relevant experience, cultural fit, availability and cost. But beyond these basics, we have found a set of five fundamental principles to direct the choice of who, what, and when. These principles can make a big difference in getting the right people on board:
1. Make your external talent strategy transparent. You can only select from the agile talent you attract, which suggests that you must have a talent strategy that is clear and attractive to the quality of external expertise you need. As many have commented, top consultants and gigsters have many options and are primarily drawn to opportunities that are meaningful and challenging, and where the organization and its leadership provides a productive and respectful environment for external talent.
However, a good agile talent strategy needs to be communicated as effectively internally as it is externally. Employees want to know how the choice of external vs. internal talent fits into the overall resourcing and business plan. If unclear, internal staff may engender suspicion about why the organization has chosen to go outside rather than inside, why leaders are seeking temporary or part-time assistance rather than full-time expertise, and whether there are deeper implications—for example, does it suggest longer term changes in terms of organization performance and career concerns?
2. Ask who can do the real job: 1X, 3X or 10X? Organizations bring agile talent on board to achieve a result they feel unable to achieve without reaching outside for assistance. But it is important for leaders and their Procurement or HR colleagues to honestly and explicitly determine the level of contribution that is required, and ensure the chosen external expert is up to the task. Does the task require an effective external resource (1X), a particularly strong and experienced agile talent (3X), or truly senior and amazing expertise (10X)?
Too often leaders bring in the wrong external colleagues to save cost or time, and the individuals recruited lack the experience or talent to achieve the level of innovation or impact required. Or, conversely, management imports a truly extraordinary talent for the type of assignment that should be handled by a lesser resource, one who may be more available, less expensive, or more able and willing to facilitate a transfer technical capability than a true star. In short, the selection process needs to specify the contribution needed, and to ensure that the chosen resource delivers.
3. Define table stakes and differentiators. Individuals bring a mix of skills, experiences and qualities to the organizations that employ them. In selecting agile talent, it’s crucial that hiring managers understand the difference between “table stakes” competencies and the critical few competency “differentiators” that are essential for success at the level of contribution required (e.g., 1X, 3X or 10X). Table stakes competencies are those one “can’t get in the door without.” But to deliver the outcome for which the organization initially decided to seek external help, what critical few competencies or experiences are truly needed? That is the question that needs to be answered early and honestly, and the basis upon which agile talents are best selected.
4. Involve the right organization members. Choosing agile talent ought to involve the individuals who will depend on the external resource, and those on whom the agile talent will depend. But organizations are often weak in this aspect of the selection process. Problems we typically see include:
- not involving individuals who are key to the external’s success in completing the assignment;
- involving too many people in unproductive or unfocused ways;
- taking too long by being sloppy about the decision criteria — either too many, or too few, or not outcome-oriented;
- focusing disproportionately on social criteria, making selection a beauty contest (who we like best);
- choosing safe (“Nobody ever got fired hiring ___”) instead of fully meeting the challenge.
In the final analysis, a good selection process for agile talent is ultimately nothing more or less than a disciplined effort to determine who best has the competence and expertise to achieving the goal.
5. Keep selecting through frequent review. We have been on both sides of agile talent — as executives hiring external experts and as consultants advising leaders. Our consistent experience, from both sides, is that agile talent relationships are more successful when performance is measured rigorously, frequently, and both sides honestly review progress with clear criteria for continuing, changing, or ending the relationship. More often is better than less often. The process of regular, rigorous, review should be laser-focused on a real agenda: the competencies figured as crucial differentiators, and how well progress and client acceptance corresponds to expectations and agreements. This mechanism helps organizations to avoid the error of continuing a relationship that isn’t delivering sufficient results.
Agile talent assignments vary tremendously, from the anthropologists advising Google/Alphabet to the consultants supporting SAP implementations, or the part-time designer of Christmas cards for Hallmark. But while the work may differ, the selection process ought to align means and ends as tightly as possible. Using these five principles, leaders and their advisors in Purchasing and HR are likely to do a far better job of selecting the agile talent they need, and more nearly establishing the conditions for project success.
This article was originally published in Harvard Business Review.