Empowering innovation: When should CTOs seek external expertise?

Heather Abbott, Partner at AKF Partners, advises on when and how CTOs should bring in external help as they embark on innovation.

The last 18 months have presented both stark challenges to overcome and opportunities for innovation. For many, the pandemic has acted as a catalyst for reform and powered digital transformation initiatives across different sectors. But, with that said, how do we prepare ourselves for the digital future when our experience might not quite match up with the reality of what is needed to put those big, bold ideas for transformation into action?  

In the technology space, seeking external expertise can be a worthwhile endeavour. This enables organizations to tap into the wide range of knowledge out there, which might be what is needed to create lasting change within a business. A sea of opportunities for learning abound, but in some instances, we are only using a drop of that potential knowledge. With the addition of an outside viewpoint, we have the ability to drive forward objectives in novel ways, while solving existing problems that continue to crop up.  

In the current climate, businesses and individuals alike have set new standards for what they would like to achieve, and how. Whether your organization is seeking to improve its digital presence, introduce new IT systems or figure out the best AI solutions – looking outward for advice may be helpful. But is there a set of rules for when and how to do this? It’s important to begin by identifying when your organization might need assistance.

The warning signs 

Digital transformation programmes are thriving at present – but achieving the goals set out in these programmes can sometimes be more difficult than anticipated. In fact, nearly half of executives do not think their organizations have the right tech to successfully implement a digital transformation programme. The best possible chance for success involves observing certain warning signs and taking action before problems arise. 

Pay close attention to levels of morale among your engineering team. Low morale can be an indicator that there may be deeper issues at play that will need to be addressed imminently. The presence of decaying data architecture and technology can oftentimes create problems down the line that may be harder to solve if they become deeply ingrained in company culture and day-to-day activities. 

In addition, a major indicator of unforeseen problems within the team is when quality of your product begins to trend in the wrong direction. Despite best efforts to make improvements, it may seem that nothing is effective and the quality of output continues to decline. This is a clear warning sign that you may need some additional assistance to find out what the exact issue is that is stunting progress.

Another potential warning sign is when a company is unable to keep up with the pace of change. As we begin retiring legacy IT systems and preparing for what comes next, you might find that leadership does not have the skillset to implement those changes and grow with the business. In this case, external expertise might be the key to ensuring that the company and team feel equipped to make the most of their new systems.  

The post-pandemic world is ripe for innovation, so naturally there might be an increase in competition in your industry. If a competitive threat is on the horizon, seeking an external perceptive may become necessary to properly assess what competitors are doing and create a plan for action with that knowledge. The emergence of a competitive threat might also appear in the form of the organization itself entering a period of monumental growth – which can create additional challenges for leadership if they do not have the bandwidth to deal with this increase in scope. 

If your digital transformation projects have stalled and don’t seem to be meeting their objectives, this is an additional red flag of issues to come. Asking for an outside view on these projects may reveal the root cause of the delays and empower your team to reach for those goals in a more effective manner.  

Removing roadblocks to innovation 

The benefits to bringing in external help are vast, particularly when we keep an open mind and see the experience as a learning opportunity and investment in the future. Asking for external help is not about hiring someone to do the work for you, but enabling you to find the right solutions so that you can do the work even better. 

Regardless of the negative impact that common problems such as low morale can have on the operations of a business, there can sometimes be a reluctance to turn to external experts. Seeking out advice is not an admission that the CTO is not performing their job well. The role of the external expert is to provide a new perspective that could be incredibly valuable for a business and accelerate their capabilities, not to bring up past mistakes. It is important to remember that everyone is working together towards common objectives. It is critical to keep an open mind and think of the experience as an opportunity to learn new skills. 

In addition to providing new ideas, often external help can bring credibility and add weight to things that the CTO is already recommending within their organization. While the need for this extra support can sometimes be frustrating, it is a reality in most organizations – and can be a useful way to add much-needed reinforcement to ideas the CTO and engineering team would already like to advance.

The world is continually changing around us, and what was needed in the past may no longer be right for a company’s future. Asking questions and receiving feedback on past decisions is a great place to start – and introduces the opportunity to keep evolving and improving with society’s new demands. Once these barriers are broken down, and the right mindset is reached, innovation can take place, and progress can really be made towards organizational objectives.  

Putting the skills to use 

Now that you have an external view, how do you communicate the ideas to your team and really make the most of the advice you have received? Certain guidelines and practices must be put into place to ensure that everyone is working towards a common goal. Fostering collaboration is important from the onset of the project, to create rapport amongst the team and develop a crystal-clear understanding of what you are setting out to achieve.  

As this external help is intended to be a temporary fixture, good consultancies should offer a strategy to help bridge the gap when their work has ended. The aim is to guide organizations to diagnosing and fixing their own problems and assist them in their development. The entire process should be interactive, with the goal of empowering the teams to make the best decisions and work towards success independently.  


With optimism, curiosity and an open mind, a bit of external help can really open doors. In times like these that are synonymous with transformation and change, a fresh perspective and guidance in the right direction may be just the way to put bold new ideas into action. Asking for help is not a weakness, but a real opportunity to grow. 

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Amber Donovan-Stevens

Amber is a Content Editor at Top Business Tech

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