how to manage the subject matter experts on your team

It’s great to have subject matter experts on your team. In addition to your own team benefiting from their expertise, they may end up highly sought by other teams too, which can raise your team’s value throughout the organization. But when subject expertise isn’t the person’s main job responsibility, how can you get the most value from them without overextending them or shortchanging their other work?

1. Make providing expertise an explicit part of their job. Otherwise, people tend to get stuck providing expertise on top of an already full-time slate of other duties. But if you make it a clear part of their role, it can be easier to carve out protected time for that work/ For example, if you acknowledge that 15% of the person’s time will be spent providing feedback to the technical writing team even though they’re a product engineer, it’s going to help reinforce that they’ve only got 85% of their time remaining for their “core” work – and prevent a situation where they get stuck with full-time work plus another 15%.

2. Be clear about the trade-offs. Jane may provide huge value to the company by spending that 15% of her time helping another team, but if it leaves your team short-handed on its own important work, you need to confront that tension head-on. Does the other team actually need to hire their own staff member to handle what Jane is helping them with? Do you need to add staff to your own time? Is it okay that your team will get slightly less done because Jane is providing that help? There are a variety of possible answers here; the key is for you to get really clear on what trade-offs are reasonable to make and whether there are better alternatives.

3. Be really clear with the staff member about priorities. It might be just fine for Jane to lend her expertise to other teams much of the team, but you’ll want to make sure she’s aligned with you about what the limits of that are. Are there projects that always need to come first? Are there pieces of your project cycles where you need her to be unavailable to other teams so that she can focus on her work for you? It’s crucial to make sure that you and the person are very much on the same page, so that the time she’s allocating to providing expertise versus other work doesn’t conflict with what your team needs.

Relatedly, make sure that the person doesn’t feel overextended or pulled in too many different directions. One way to do that is to explicitly authorize the person to push back when subject expertise requests are threatening their other work or their ability to work a reasonable schedule. If the person knows you want them to raise it when that’s happening, you’re more likely to hear about it early, rather than only once the problem is entrenched and the person is approaching burn-out.

{ 30 comments… read them below }

  1. Engineer Girl*

    I’d add some more:
    Believe the SME when they say that there is 20 hours a week work instead of 10 hours a week. It doesn’t matter that the other manager stated the project was 10 hours a week. The SME is the expert, so is best able to gage the work. So many times managers can’t manage a part time employee. They’ll give the employee a schedule assuming 40 hour work weeks instead of 10. The SME ends up with 2 full time jobs. The new manager will only gage the work itself and leave out the other time consuming items: meeting with stakeholders, documentation, design meetings, etc.
    Also beware of managers that want the SME to rubber stamp their project. Many times they’ll start attacking the SME when the SME points out problems that need to be corrected. Again, if the expert is the expert, they know when things are messed up. If needed, give the SME some time to outline ALL of the things that need to be fixed. Don’t expect the SME to make miracles with a broken product.

    1. sstabeler*

      and – if you have brought in the SME due to the product being broken- if the SME tells you you are better off starting from scratch, it’s a good idea to at least listen to the reasons why. ( on the other hand, if you do decide to try to fix the existing product instead of starting from scratch, explain why- and make clear that the SME’s opinion was not dismissed out of hand)

  2. Kyrielle*

    And yes to the last paragraph! I was an SME at my previous job for years. Quick requests just got dealt with, because my boss set time aside for that. Longer requests got a reply that said I couldn’t do that quickly but I could do it, but they’d need to schedule with my boss.

    They really did handle that very well. (It helped that most of the people pulling me for SME-type input were pulling me into billable projects, and our development team gained billable time on balance when I did that, which made things look good.)

    1. sstabeler*

      it’s still a good idea anyway- if nothing else, to ensure that the SME requests don’t interfere with your actual job- either by not leaving enough time for you to do your actual job, or by causing excessive amounts of stress- such as if requests for help start coming in when you aren’t at work.

  3. Stranger than fiction*

    Timely article. What about when you’re the expert and part of your job is to train people on product and show where all tha backup documentation is but all you seem to succeed in training people at is to come to you with the same questions over and over?! In other words, they refuse to learn.

    1. Liza*

      I think I saw that covered here recently, but I’ve been slowly working my way through the archives so “recently” may mean “it was written in 2010 but I just saw it.” The part of the advice I remember was to say things like “grab a pencil, you’re going to want to write this down” and then the next time they ask for help, ask them what they’ve already done.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Yeah been there done many things like that. Its really a deeper cultural issue that it’s allowed to perpetuate

    2. LQ*

      One thing to do is wait. Or better yet point them to the resources and say, I’m sorry I’m in the middle of working on something can I meet with you tomorrow after noon to answer any questions you still have?

    3. Serin*

      You are reminding me unpleasantly of my second-worst boss.

      (My first-worst boss would never have done such a thing, because that would have meant acknowledging that there was anything anyone could tell her that she didn’t already know.)

    4. sstabeler*

      what I would do, if their question is covered in the documentation, start directing people to the documentation rather than giving them the answer itself. (obviously, this will only work if you won’t get into trouble for it)

      1. Wanna-Alp*

        Yes yes yes. What you’re trying to do is give them a response that has two characteristics. Firstly, it looks to a third-party that it is very definitely helpful, i.e. you definitely pointed someone to the information. Secondly, it puts the work burden back onto the person asking the question, in some fashion.

        This could be something like “I answered this question for you in an email back in July; please check your email archive” or a URL for the web page of the documentation. You can do this in more helpful detail if necessary, e.g. giving the date of the email to help them look, or pointing them to the section of the documentation.

        If you get back more questions, same approach, again helpful but redirecting them to where they have to do work. “I can’t find it in my email archive”. “I sent it on July 10th, that should narrow the search down”. (You don’t want to get into a habit of just forwarding the email; that teaches the person that they don’t have to bother archiving their emails because they can just bug you, and you, being organised, will forward it to them.) “I don’t understand this documentation”. “Ok, I am happy to explain it. Which precise bit of the documentation don’t you understand?”

        You’re trying to convey the message that whilst you’re not being unhelpful, you’re not going to make their workpile smaller for them.

    5. cell phone anon*

      This, so much. i do a fair amount of training on the Subjects of my Expertise, and for the most part, people at least try.

      Except this one guy. Who just would not get it. With bonus bugging me after i told him i’m busy, talking to me whiel i’m on a call, and standing behind me lurking a lot.

      Thankfully he found another job.

  4. HeyNonnyNonny*

    Also please make sure your team actually uses the SME’s input! There is nothing more frustrating than taking the time to provide feedback that gets ignored…especially when leadership reviews later and has to ask for feedback again because they’re still finding problems.

  5. Ama*

    In reading this article, I realized I am an SME on a key program for our org and have been doing just what this article says not to do in #1– treating requests for my expertise as additional to my job duties even though I’m getting an increasing amount of them. I have been trying to come up with better strategies for managing my workload, but I’ve been completely ignoring that segment of my job. This is going to be an important adjustment for both my own approach to my job and as I articulate workload issues to my boss.

    1. sstabeler*

      yes and no. #1 seems to be more about the employer making it an explicit part of their job, and factoring that in the workload given- rather than expecting the SME to shoulder a full workload AND offer their expertise on ther projects as-needed.

      more or less, consider SME work as a project for the employee to do, and assign time in the employee’s schedule for them to offer their expertise on other projects. ( so, for example, the employer might decide they only want you spedning 2 hours a week on SME-related work, while the rest of your workweek, you do your suual work as if you were not an SME. Obviously, this will mean needing to turn down some requests for your help, though.)

  6. GlorifiedPlumber*

    I love saying “SMEEEEE!” Probably my favorite acronym from the engineering and other worlds.

    I might add some additional tips we’ve found to extract useful information from our SME’s, I am curious how other companies feel about these!

    1) When you make it part of their job, make it clear to THEM how they will be evaluated on performance of that job. Make it clear to others who will SEEK this information how to evaluate them on performance of that job. Not all companies have a peer evaluation system of yearly performance, we happen to have that. You need to make sure the evaluee and evaluator both understand the goals and performance standards.

    2) Educate those SEEKING info from a SME how to get it and what roll the SME will play in their projects or their workflow. If you do not do that, the SME will be subject to never ending flavors of request and that will contribute to rework, inefficiency, and general malaise.

    3) Formalize the role of SME’s within your organization. Have answers to questions like: “How does a non SME become a SME?” “How do projects budget for use of SME’s?” “What do SME’s do when they are done being SME’s?” “How do you share SME’s among your organization, among business groups, other silo’s, other offices, etc.”

    4) Realize that not everyone WANTS to be a SME. You may have a real need for a SME, but an employee who dislikes it. While, in some cases, put up and deal, just be aware of what you are doing by asking people with SME like brains but no desire to be a SME to act as a SME.

    Anyways, just some thoughts.

    1. Anlyn*

      I’ve never quite gotten into the habit of saying “Smeee”, instead still saying each letter out loud, “S.M.E.”. I think because every time I hear it, I can’t get the pirate from Peter Pan out of my head.

      1. Ann On a Mouse*

        Try working at Disney. You’re never quite 100% sure if people are talking about a SME or about Mr. Smee.

    2. So Very Anonymous*

      Also, my job by definition is to be a SME, and I’m going to have to start saying “SMEEEEEEE” in my head more often.

      That, along with the “Yakkity Sax” comment from another thread today, is giving me some great mental images for coping with the beginning of the semester craziness on campus…

  7. Ann Furthermore*

    Do not allow other groups or customers to take advantage of your SME and slowly suck away all her enthusiasm for her job, to the point that she starts job searching and fantasizing about the resignation email she’ll send if she finds something else. And if other groups or customers don’t follow your SME’s advice, and yet still insist they must have her help, CUT THEM LOOSE and let your SME work on something else, or with other people who will value her input. Don’t penalize the SME for her expertise by making her continue to work with people who have demonstrated time and again that they will ignore any and all advice and do what they want.

  8. HRChick*

    What if you’re the SME and the higher of the higher ups refuses to make changes based on your recommendation?

    I was hired for my expertise in a certain area. The business I was hired into had started a program in this area, but they couldn’t get it to work and everyone was getting royally angry. It was time consuming and had zero usable outputs.

    So, I basically made a couple huge changes that needed to be made in order for this program to work. But, the higher ups are refusing to sign off on the changes because (and I’m quoting here) they “don’t want to give employees the impression that the program failed”. Even though it did fail. Even though everyone can see it failed. Even though they can’t use anything from the program because it’s so failed.

    And they expect me to “re-train” employees on the current program. How am I supposed to train them, respond to their (very vocal and confrontational) complaints? I agree with them 100%. The program needs changes to work. But I can’t just wave my wand and make it happen.

    It’s so frustrating as a SME to be put in this position :(

  9. So Very Anonymous*

    Also, if your SME tells you that her expertise doesn’t extend to a particular highly specialized area which involves special training and refers you to people whose job it is to have that specialized expertise, LISTEN TO HER. Don’t insist that you know better than she does what she’s trained in, don’t encourage others to expect that specialized expertise from her anyway, and don’t make her feel guilty for needing to refer those questions on to the people who really can answer those questions.

  10. Fantasma*

    I’m a SME on several unrelated and semi-related topics, which means I get a ton of requests. Our company culture is such that you’re expected to help when asked, which creates difficulties when you’re also on a big project. I let my boss know and he’s helping me prioritize and deflect/reject requests. It’s tough because it’s often the right thing for the company but terrible for the team and me as an individual.

    At a previous job, I first had one boss who allowed other teams to book time with me if they cleared it with her — it sucked up many hours. Then we had a re-org and I suddenly stopped getting a calendar invites. I mentioned it to my new manager (to basically warn him in case they started back up when I was working on a project). He told me he’d been saying no to requests that didn’t help me meet my goals or provide good development opportunities or meet the needs of our team and org (since I wouldn’t get “credit” for them the way our evaluation system worked). That was incredibly helpful and allowed me to remain productive.

  11. Wanna-Alp*

    I’d add that if you have a SME, don’t treat them as if they don’t know any more than a non-expert, in their area of expertise. You’d think this would go without saying, but no, I have seen it happen several times in different organisations where the organisation would do the equivalent of putting cinnamon powder in the mix for the chocolate teapot decorations, and one or more chocolate experts would point out that you need cocoa powder, not cinnamon powder, only to get the response of either silence & cinnamon powder, or “That’s just your subjective opinion” & cinnamon powder, or, even worse, chocsplaining & cinnamon powder.

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