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Is it possible for a contract to somehow trigger an event which an external process may listen for? Or is polling the only practical way currently to determine an outcome in a contract?

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There is no way for smart contract to send any signal to external process however there's some alternative approach that's create processes listen to the blockchain state or event by a period of time.

One more thing, normally a smart contract is called from external tool/agent.

  • As the alternative method, do you mean to be saying polling of blockchain state by an external process? – expaand Jun 23 '18 at 14:14
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Check out the demux library for listening to EOS blockchain events. As far as I know there is no event logs like in Ethereum so you have to poll the api node

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