2 ways to handle subject matter expert problems

Table of Contents

Let’s tackle a questions we commonly hear from frustrated business owners, managers and trainers – subject matter expert problems.

How do I handle subject matter expert problems?

You know – those subject matter experts who promise to do something but don’t. Or they do something and you can see its half-hearted. Or they are doing something but it is taking forever. Boy this can be frustrating. So let’s look at a few prevention ideas and then a few cures.

Select the right subject matter expert!

80% of the time, subject matter expert problems occur because you didn’t select a good SME to begin with. I have another article which goes into depth about selecting a great SME. Briefly your SME needs…

  • Current expertise which is relevant to the future.
  • Ample time to devote to this exercise.
  • A positive attitude to sharing their expertise (intrinsic motivation).

There’s more you can do upfront, however, to further increase the probability of success and avoid future subject matter expert problems.

Solution 1: Prevention is the best method

  1. Get the SME’s manager involved. This isn’t always possible if the SME is very senior, but many SMEs will be reporting to someone. It’s very useful if that ‘someone’ is on your side. Whatever your manager tells you is important…becomes important to you. So we want to avoid the manager of the SME sending the wrong messages.
  2. Set a deadline with meaning. If you set a deadline but its just a date you choose, it has little consequence on the SME. However, if your deadline is being driven by other events which rely on the SME completing their work, then that’s different. Your SME needs to be aware of that and consequences for lateness.
  3. Set milestones with deadlines. Even better, set a series of milestones with deadlines for your SME.  Have their topic outline due by a certain date, their first draft a week later and their final draft a week after that. That keeps your SME moving and gives you a series of triggers to manage the problem before it gets out of hand.
  4. Ensure the SME is recognized as they go. SMEs often work on their topics and get no recognition until the topic is complete and other people have started to explore it – often weeks later. If you can, get meaningful recognition for the SME as they are working. If they have a great outline, get a senior manager to recognize that or promote the SMEs work as a ‘top example’ as they are going.
  5. Motivate the SME. Some SMEs share because they like the fame of being recognized as an SME. Other SMEs share because they find it intrinsically rewarding. Other SMEs share because they will be rewarded in some way. Find out what motivates your SME and apply that motivation!

Solution 2: Sometimes a cure is needed

Sometimes, even if you set-up everything as best as you can, the SME just goes off the rails.

Talk with the SME to figure out the root cause. Approach this with an open mind and a genuine interest to find out what’s in the SMEs way. Assume they want to share their knowledge, but something is preventing them. If done well, will fix the vast majority of problem SMEs.

  • We seem to be behind on schedule. How are things going at your end? Is there something I can help you with?
  • We got off to a great start, but seem to have slowed down now. I thought I would check in and see how you feel things are going?
  • The deadline is approaching and I am a bit worried we are going to run out of time. How are you feeling about that? Is there anything in your way or something I can fix?

Most of the time, something will be revealed. Now you have options – you can talk with their manager, rethink your deadline, manage their expectations or provide extra hand-holding. Having a great knowledge sharing platform, which makes the process of sharing their expertise easy and rewarding is critical too.

Avoid berating them or, worse, getting their manager to berate them until you know what’s going on. Punishing an SME for failing to share their knowledge is a double-edged sword. Perhaps the SME needs a good kick. Or perhaps they just didn’t realise how important that was.

However, if the SME has been stressed, overworked, under-resourced or just doing the best they can, then getting their manager involved will only further dis-engage them. Their manager is a ‘stick to beat them with’, but be careful how you use it.

Perhaps you just need another subject matter expert

You might need to find another subject matter expert. If you have an SME who just dis-engages, then forcing the issue may not be a wise idea. They may complete the topic, but it might be of a very poor quality. Sometimes, your SME just wont share their expertise (or has no time to do so). There’s no point ‘flogging a dead horse’. You might be better off just starting fresh with a new SME.


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