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Managing SMEs – Part 1: A Primer for Success

by Philip Rastocny

Editor’s Notes
Just the thought of dealing with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) can create stress in the life of any documentation manager. Some SMEs can be self consumed, preoccupied, distant, and even rude. But why do these behaviors exist? This article briefly describes how to interact with people who might be difficult to motivate and how to work with people whose priorities may differ from yours.

Introduction – The Challenges of Timely Reviews

Reviews are necessary to assure the integrity and quality of any document. Timely reviews keep your schedule on track and those of the people who work for you. When such reviews are cursory, incomplete, or even worse, skipped, the results are lower-quality products and typical bugs or errors in either commission or omission. It seems logical for SMEs to do whatever is necessary to advance the project and produce a complete product suite that includes documentation.

Looking at the real reasons why some SMEs only casually review documentation can give you insight on how best to manage this issue. Taking time to analyze and understand these issues then gives you the opportunity to negotiate, align, reorganize, or reschedule accordingly.

Impact – Schedules and Delivery

Everyone understands – or at least should understand – the need for schedules. By definition, schedules run projects and determine when any effort is delivered. When a large project is undertaken, the master schedule determines the start and end times, and what happens in between impacts the end time. When delays are encountered within a project, one of two things occurs: either time is made up in other “slack” areas, or the project end time slips.

Slack time is the time in a project where multiple (parallel) tasks are processing and the individual completion times are independent of each other. All such tasks must, however, converge at a milestone date that determines a completed phase of a project. Many tasks are intensive at different project phases and typically things go wrong or are under estimated in complexity or staff hours or both. Computers crash, trucks are late, weather closes the building, death in the family, etc., are all valid reasons for delay. Regardless, the choices of a project end date or a milestone date are always the same: either you make it (preferred) or slide it (risky).

Planning for such known outages and understanding that at these times SMEs are worked harder can help keep the project-completion risk factor low. In the original Star Trek series, Captain Kirk constantly asked his Chief Engineer Mr. Scott for quicker delivery. Kirk’s words were something like “You’ve got two hours to do that” when Mr. Scott had just told Captain Kirk it would take four hours. The trick Mr. Scott used is that he always allowed for this behavior and usually doubled or tripled his original time estimate.

Some people are reasonable and provide realistic time estimates in a project plan while others do not. In developing your part of the schedule, remember to take your co-worker’s scheduling habits into consideration when estimating your own efforts. Allow for such unrealistic requests and try to pad enough slack time into your schedule to be used when such crisis times arise. Then, the chance of overworking your team or placing unreasonable demands upon your SMEs is less. Proper planning always yields positive results. As one famous quote goes: “If you fail to plan, then plan to fail.”

Morale – Stress and the Writer/SME Interaction

As stated, there are two choices when schedules appear to be compromised: 1) take up the slack or 2) slip the schedule. Taking up the slack is always preferred, especially early on in a project. Once a delay slips a milestone, it has a snowball effect on the entire project. The attitude of the team changes and the enthusiasm and excitement wanes. Emotion is what fuels productivity and inspiration – never forget this.

So taking up the slack is the preferred choice when a schedule appears in jeopardy. The choices you have in doing so are 1) work overtime, and 2) work smarter. If you have adequately anticipated such outages in your plan, overtime is not necessary. But things happen and even the best plans change. So the option of working harder seems to be the best choice. And your colleagues who are managing their parts of the project are all thinking the same way. As a result, everyone begins to work longer hours trying to catch up.

Your team feels this pinch and SMEs do also. Morale at this time begins to decline as does family and social life. Productivity and quality also suffer when project deadlines loom, especially if there is more work left in the month than the time to complete it. Putting yourself in an SME’s place can give you insight on how to manage your SMEs. It all begins with communication.

Outages – The Accuracy vs. Completion Tight Wire

In communicating, each person tries to understand what the other is saying. When stress arises, communication changes since the minds of both communicators are distracted. Focusing on an issue is clouded by other pressures and the ability to devote complete attention to something may not be available. But that’s OK – as long as the big issues are addressed. For the most part, smaller project issues can be ignored and solved later.

Deciding what’s important is the key. Communicating this fact to an SME helps relieve the stress, since some SMEs feel that reviewing a document is too time consuming to commit total focus and address it properly. Decide what is critical to review and what is not. What you will find is that an SME most likely will do the review and do it thoroughly since they have the option to just briefly look at it.

People’s nature takes over in a review. Professionals, like SMEs, all have pride in their work and try to do the best they can regardless of the task. If an SME knows that the entire document is not required to be reviewed, you just might find that the whole document is carefully scrutinized, since once the review begins, professionalism takes hold.

Giving an SME the option to be brief can also help in other commitments. Since documentation interaction is typically not something that appears in an SME’s annual review, the priority of the task is lower in their minds. The primary job they have been hired to do is not to review documents, but rather write code, design something, market something, and so on. SMEs also realize that such a task must be done at some point and the longer it can be delayed, the more time they have to contribute to and be evaluated on their “real” job. Not over-working or over-reviewing a document gives an SME more time to devote to their primary responsibility. Telling the SME that you are concerned about their workload also helps create good review habits.

Despite your best efforts to coerce and flatter an SME, outages still arise. Once an outage is reached, understand clearly what happened. Talk to both the writer and the SME’s manager to get insight on how to avoid this in the future. Being concerned rather than looking to place blame is always the best attitude to take when moving a project back on schedule.

Documentation Planning – Finding Unknown-Unknowns

In the project-planning phase, most managers recall issues with which they are familiar and plan a schedule accordingly. Project-management professionals understand that there are four types of issues involving known problems and unknown problems: 1) known-knowns (things with which we are familiar), 2) known-unknowns (things we know that we don’t know), 3) unknown-knowns (things that we don’t realize we know), and 4) unknown-unknowns (things that totally escape us and catch us by surprise). The last category is the hardest to predict, but is typically what creeps into a schedule and causes scheduling slips.

So what are “unknown-unknowns” in scheduling an SME’s role in your project plan? Typically, these are unanticipated decision variables and can be tied to personality traits, external influences, illnesses, and even disasters.

How SMEs interact with your writers can be predicted to a point. But as a project’s complexity increases, such predictability becomes less certain. In longer projects, this issue even becomes more likely to occur. Simply put, things change in such plans to a point to where even the best brainstorming cannot forecast. Allowing yourself to be human and including time for such events in your plan is how to successfully address such issues.

Strategies – How To Plan For Success

Just admitting to yourself that you cannot think of everything in a project plan is the first step to success. Allowing for your staff’s personalities in estimating project times is what you already do – possibly without even knowing it. Some people just take more time to do something than others [more detailed, longer talkers, writes down everything, etc.] and this is a resource that you as a manger use wisely. Delegating specific work to a person who is good at that type of task is how most managers decide who works on what part of a project.

Matching skills sets with tasks usually works in producing results on documentation quality, but matching personalities in interacting with SMEs must also be considered in estimating project completion times and schedules. For example, writer Jill is outgoing and knows everything about this widget. SME Jan designs these widgets and is a total introvert. How do you think these two people are going to interact? It may be better to put writer Joyce who knows a bit about the widget but is not as extroverted on this project since their personalities are more compatible.

Some people just cannot get along with each other. There is something that just pushes another person’s buttons to the point that avoidance and resentment creeps in. When assigning two people to work together with such known issues, the results can be easily predicted – and totally avoided.

Other factors to consider are similar social interests, musical preferences, and other personality traits that can give you an insight as to planning the success of the SME/writer interaction. What may appear to take longer in a writing point of view may actually take much less time in a scheduling perspective once personalities are considered.

Know Your Resources

Here, communication is essential between team managers. Ask questions at meetings about personality quirks and preferences to get an idea of who would be a good match for the work. Taking the time in the planning stage to match SMEs to the best writers will help keep your project on schedule.

Be Flexible

Unknown unknowns creep into every plan. If you have the best SME-to-writer match possible, also consider that your choice may be improper. What you thought would be a good match may in fact be a disaster. A replacement or a swap of resources is always an option. Create a list of likely people to do the work and understand how assignment changes will disrupt other projects.

Tactics – When to Implement These Strategies

Be patient. Most of the time personality issues resolve themselves. Making a staffing change in the middle of a project is always risky but sometimes necessary. Only you and the advice of your management team can determine when this is appropriate.

Weigh the values of changing assignments against the outcome of all projects involved. Remember that you lead and your team follows. Making hasty decisions causes your team to question your leadership; making no decision can do the same. Communication with your management team gives you insight as to when or if a change is necessary.

Always adjust your plan. Monitoring progress and how reviews are going allows you to keep your pulse on the schedule. Changes in the project will always filter into your plan. Be informed and stay current on all aspects of a project and understand how changes impact your portion of the schedule.

Cooperation

In your own team meetings, find out what issues arise in SME interaction. After filtering out inappropriate comments or rumors, get to the truth of an issue and discuss strategies with your team. Dispel negative attitudes and instill an atmosphere of cooperation. After all, it is your job to teach your team how to best work with difficult people. Share your knowledge and tactics with your team by providing personal insights you may have from your own experiences. Help them to help themselves and your schedules will reflect this.

Pressure

When a milestone looms, tensions increase. Without saying, SMEs feel this same pressure and as a result, the an entire company’s morale can go down; some people thrive on it and some don’t. Unfortunately from a management point of view, far fewer people belong to the former category.

In the long run, helping your team through times of great pressure is beneficial. Emotion and attitude plays an important role in creating tolerance to pressure. Find ways to relieve the pressure your team feels without sacrificing a schedule. Some suggestions include:

  • Bring in change. Just a simple look in the office – plants or pictures or colors or aromas – can alter people’s impressions of their stress from a more relaxing environment.
  • Consciously change your own behavior. Selectively change the way you react to the stress. The role you portray can go a long way to lowering your team’s stress.
  • Be positive. Look for the best in any situation. Point out the good efforts already made, and encourage people to redouble their efforts in this same vane.
  • Take a break. Sometimes the best thing to do when you are stressed is to stop. Find ways to unwind that takes your mind off the stress – at least for a while. Once calm, you can better embrace a plan to address stressful issues.

Options – Contingency Planning

Rarely will a project go exactly as planned. Being prepared for change is part of the territory. Instead of becoming frustrated and angry, think of alternatives to the situation. Until an SME has time to review a document, you may find other things people can do with their time.

Identify Alternates

There is always something to do even if it is not the planned time to do it. Some tasks, while seemingly out of sequence, can still be performed. Find out how to keep your people busy by looking ahead and assigning tasks that had to be done regardless of the state of the project. Getting future issues resolved at times of delay is always a wise use of resources.

Parallel Tasks

Some tasks can be done simultaneously. Determine which of the tasks you have in a project that can be done in this manner and then when an issue arises implement the parallel task. For example, while SMEs are reviewing documents, what will writers do with their time? The answer to these simple questions will always keep the project moving forward.

Similarly, asking the SME’s managers this same question can create a spirit of cooperation so that the overall project can move forward. Be prepared to offer suggestions – not demands – of your counterparts. The squeaky wheel gets the grease but the broken record gets thrown away. Know how to be political in managing your requests and be conscious of making a project a total group effort.

Compromise – When and How Should it be Negotiated?

Sometimes, a schedule must be compromised. When all avenues of alternatives are exhausted, there may be situations that are just insurmountable. With proper planning, these situations can at least be kept to a minimum. When compromise is necessary, again remember to plan.

Confrontation can be a constructive tool when used properly. Some reasons are justified and others are not. When they are not, ask the person responsible how they plan to address the issue. Give people a chance to solve their own problems instead of telling them how to do it. Empowering them in this way allows them to accept ownership and responsibility rather than blame and frustration. If one individual on your team is disruptive – and you know this behavior in advance – take this person aside and explain to them what you are going to do in the meeting. Pre-coach them so that this disruption is at least minimized.

Timeline Analysis

When compromising, always reference milestones in making decisions. Ask managers and your team about how they plan to react to a schedule change and then make a decision based on all of the input. Lead in a manner that reinforces people’s views of you and the project.

If the SME has not completed a review, find out what impact this has on your schedule and describe the situation to the SME’s manager. If a writer has not finished a document in time for the SME to review, do the same analysis with that writer. Remember to always work together to find a solution as a team.

Budgetary Constraints

Rarely does throwing money at a problem create an effective solution. However, there are times that the budget may permit hiring temporary help when unknown unknowns creep into a project. Part of effective planning is knowing when and how to use this option in keeping a project moving forward. Keeping funds available for an unanticipated issue is always wise, and if they are not used, you can always divert them into a team award for a job well done.

Review Cycles – How Frequent? How Many?

Another manageable issue with SMEs is to know their breaking point. Some SMEs prefer to be involved regularly in a document’s progress while others take a more casual annual or bi-annual view. Keeping the SME in his or her comfort zone is as important as writing documentation correctly.

Over/Under Working

Preparing for a review is a task that consumes resources. Too many reviews can slow down the total process and lowers morale for both the writer and the SME. Too few reviews can impact a document’s accuracy and lead to longer development times or schedule slips. Finding a balance between the two is where you can lead your team.

Maintaining Quality

How much is enough? In the dynamic world in which we live, change is imminent. Once something is correct, field tests feed back issues that require changes and such changes require revisions of documents. Deciding on the types of known issues and which can be tolerated is a way to manage your schedule.

If SMEs are unavailable, a few questions should be asked. What is the risk of using the previous review? Will the decision of not reviewing a document from a given change impact safety or liability? How much will it cost the company if the un-reviewed changes with potential errors show up in print?

When push comes to shove, such are the hard questions. Your confidence in your writer’s abilities and your knowledge of the thoroughness of the previous review cycle will weight your decision. In making such decisions, this option should also be openly discussed with other team managers and a consensus agreed upon.

Managing SMEs – Part 2: Selling the Concept to Management

About the Author

Philip Rastocny was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 1948. He received degrees in Electrical and Biomedical Engineering Technology from Oklahoma State and a Master’s Certification in Project Management from Steven’s Institute of Technology. He has attended the Anthony Robbins Mastery University and also has several other motivational, organizational, and life training programs under his belt.

Philip has worked in the biomedical, communications, and energy conservation industries for notable companies like Bell Telephone Laboratories, Hospal Medical (Sandoz), Avaya Communication, and Lucent Technologies. He has been a technical writer, editor, trainer, IT manager, project manager, and consultant, and also as senior management in energy conservation companies.