How Your Chief Technology Officer May Kill innovation

by Yoram Solomon

How Your Chief Technology Officer May Kill innovationA few months ago I was offered a position of a Chief Technology Officer in a startup company. For real. I wasn’t going to take it, but it made me reflect on what a CTO does and, more important, what a great CTO should do in the company.

Through my history in different high-tech companies (although this applies to “low-tech” companies, as well), I noticed that when a company hires a CTO, they hire someone who knows almost everything there is to know about the technology the company is currently involved with. He or she have great depth of knowledge. And here lies the problem.

Bad assumptions

The first assumption is that the CTO brings knowledge. Cutting edge knowledge and to a great depth, but nevertheless current knowledge of the technology. The second assumption, implied by the first one, is that the CTO would educate all the other technologists in the company with his or her current knowledge. The third implied assumption is that the company will always remain focused on the same technology. Why? Because that’s what the current CTO knows, albeit knows very well. All three are bad assumptions, and here is why.

Resistance to change

As a result of the depth of knowledge held by the CTO in that one technical area, any idea of moving the company into a different technological area would face strong resistance by the CTO, who knows everything there is to know about the current technology, but not so much, if at all, about the new technology. As a result, in order to move from one technology area to another, the company might need a new CTO.

The CTO is the hero, so nobody else is

Having the CTO as the most knowledgeable person in the company means that the most difficult decisions are made by him or her. All other technical people look up to the CTO to make those decisions. They don’t try to make those technical decisions themselves. They look up for guidance. Furthermore, they believe they have the highest possible technical authority in that CTO, so they don’t need to look outside the organization for additional information. Both of those cause technical people to be less informed, less autonomous, and less creative. They are less likely to try new things or fail. Why should they? The CTO already knows the answer!

So what should a great CTO do?

The great CTO should first and foremost be a leader of technical people. The CTO’s should have breadth of technical knowledge, but not depth in a single technical discipline. It’s not important to know a specific field as much as it is important to know the discipline of technical inquiry, and best research and development practices. A great CTO would know how to lead technical people by letting them learn outside of the organization, be creative, and experiment. Oh, and fail. A great CTO would not be “locked” on the one technology she knows better than anyone else, but would rather challenge the R&D team to find new technologies and identify new areas of growth for the company. A great CTO would be proud when her technical people know more than she does.

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Dr. Yoram Solomon is an inventor, creativity researcher, coach, consultant, and trainer to large companies and employees. His Ph.D. examines why people are more creative in startup companies than in mature ones. Yoram was a professor of Technology and Industry Forecasting at the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, UT Dallas School of Management; is active in regional innovation and tech transfer; and is a speaker and author on predicting technology future and identifying opportunities for market disruption. Follow @yoram

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