Use of Subject Matter Experts

Posted on by Brandon Klein


How do we effectively leverage knowledge experts in a collaborative environment where we don’t want to “give” the answer?  SME’s are frequently frustrated by the first day of the session, feeling their expertise is being wasted. They walk a fine line between suggesting solutions and ramming them down the clients throats. They want to seize the pen and write down what they feel is the answer, forgetting that they are way ahead of the participants’ thought processes (and the client’s struggle to understand is an important part of the process). At a recent session, the client threw two subject matter experts out of the event, saying that they were blocking progress by not letting the group get to detail. The SME’s were frustrated that the participants did not appear to be going far enough in their thinking. (The client was also under stress at this point and needed to take some sort of action.)

Often, SME’s can come across as “know-it-all’s” in a breakout group where participants are trying to learn. We provide a safe, non-political, non-hierarchical environment and pontificating doesn’t play well.

It is not acceptable for SME’s to sprinkle their “magic dust” on the participants. They must collaboratively design! Often, these experts don’t have a stake in (or responsibility for) the solution. How do we create this sense of responsibility?



Use SME’s in ways that supplement the design, versus just the ‘anointed smart people’ present. They can give incredibly valuable advice to the facilitator by ensuring the right questions are being asked. They are invaluable sources of reading and case study material, without being seen to be the proponent of the ideas in that material.

SME coaching ideas:

· Challenge them to view the first two days not as wasted time, but as relationship building by different types of interaction depending on the team’s dynamics. Some participants need little motivation and lots of knowledge or ideas; others needed lots of motivation and then can build their solution. The trick is to know the audience make-up in the first 5 minutes of a breakout and have an idea of the consultant’s role for that session. Know when to shut up, remove one's self for a short period of time, or when and how to throw a different thought on the table. Being a professional salesman can help if you listen more than we talk and know when, what and how to deliver your thoughts that will create the right thought processes from the client team—not the solutions, but the thought process.

· Do not be the typical consultant talking up the volume of consultive themes, but put oneself in the client team and discuss the issue with the client. Listening and then positioning the right thoughts is the key.

· If they are talking or holding the pen more than anyone else in the breakout session, they are doing too much. If they present a report out, then they rob the client of an opportunity to teach themselves. They also risk the client’s ownership of the solution—“Well, this was the E&Y answer” is the road to ownership-leakage.

· Position SME’s as knowledge objects: people go to them to ask questions.

· Agree on their “role” previous to the DesignShop. Prepare them to participate.

· Work with them so then can establish themselves in a coaching role that will continue after the DesignShop.

· Involve them in the design of the session. Let them do some of the development work, case study collection or question formulating (be careful of their tendency to distill case studies to a set of bulleted learning points. A lot of the value of case studies is found in the anecdotes and illustrative examples versus the dry laundry list of leading practices.) They can help you know what fundamental issues need to be tackled or which tough questions must be asked that are not apparent to a sponsor team.

· Be committed and totally dedicated to the ASE session—forget the emails and voice mails. Set assistants to answer the calls and leave at the hotel only those emergencies. Do not try to be all to all during the ASE. Plan it like a vacation or holiday where the office is second.