It can feel like the ultimate catch-22 for a project manager; you need a subject matter expert (SME) to make up for your own lack of expertise on a topic, but this same deficiency of knowledge on your end can cause quite the division. In addition to that, SMEs can be quite rigid in their approach and opinions about their topic of expertise, which can be difficult for project managers in mitigating deadlines.
How can you properly manage someone whose work is out of your knowledge sphere, and ensure they actually are doing the right thing, before it’s too late and your project has been completely derailed?
Project managers need to be able to apply the right level of trust and caution when it comes to managing subject matter experts; lean one way or the other too much and it can severely impact the outcome of your project.
Before your project begins
There are a couple of baseline expectations you need to get in place. Starting out on the right foot is something that can’t be overlooked. It can set the tone for your relationship with your SME and, consequently, the level of output you can achieve with them.
Firstly, acknowledge the elephant in the room. Their level of expertise in this particular subject far exceeds yours. Instead of trying to claim a stake in their area of expertise, reiterate your own. Verbally recognize that their knowledge is incredibly important and welcomed to the project, and then establish how your knowledge and skills are just as essential for making sure his or her hard work is successful.
This shows that you both have important roles without creating some sort of egotistical competition.
Secondly, work together to create possible measures of success and reporting expectations.
Whatever you do, don’t create a minefield of spreadsheets and comprehensive reports for them to fill out; that will only detract from the quality time they could be spending on completing the project. It’s incredibly tempting to do so, especially when you don’t fully understand the technicalities behind what they’re doing and want to keep a firm thumb on the process, but it’s really not necessary – or practical.
Instead, discuss with them your needs for regular project updates and set in place reasonable reporting requirements. If at any point throughout the project your SME begins to miss these reports – and that may very well happen – it’s your job to come up with the solution, not theirs. You need to take charge of ensuring that your reporting requests are still reasonable, and, if not, work on a method that will be better for the both of you (and, ultimately, the project).
While the project is being completed
There are some further steps you can take to keep your relationship with your SME running smoothly.
Employ a bit of trust. That means both trusting in them, and trusting in yourself that you’ve done a good job in hiring this subject matter expert. While you can’t get a complete picture of someone from an interview or their previous work within your company, there’s still a reason why you took on this expert in the first place. You need to be able to place a certain level of trust within that process.
It’s not about blind faith and leaving your SME to their own devices. That’s precisely why you have reporting processes and success measuring metrics in place – to give you at least an aerial view of how their involvement in your project is shaping up.
Help your subject matter expert improve. There’s been plenty said about the difficulties of being a project manager and having to depend on someone with an area of expertise you know nothing about, but what about the challenges of being alone expert working on a project?
If you’re the only one in a team or company, who knows about a particular field or topic (or you know it best), who do you turn to expand on that knowledge? One of your roles as a project manager is to get the most out of your team, and encouraging continual growth from people is part of that.
You can actually help your subject matter expert improve their skills and knowledge in two ways. One, by finding conferences, seminars, meet-ups and/or courses that they can be a part of. And two, sharing your own expertise in managing, reporting, analyzing, and more to help them round out their own skills and make them more proficient at what they do.
Investing this time may seem like it’s wasting resources and delaying the completion of your project, but that’s a very narrow-minded view. Making sure your subject matter expert is going to be even better in their field of work is only going to benefit the quality of output they’re delivering to your project.
Investing time in your own skills and expertise as a project manager is also imperative to ensure you’re equipped with the most up-to-date knowledge and skills to run successful projects. Postgraduate study in project management is an excellent way for you to stay on top of your game, and take your career to new heights.
Working with a subject matter expert is a necessary requirement of a project manager. Does that make it easy? Not always.
Follow these guidelines though, and you can have a much better time of it. More than that, you’re much more likely to get the most out of your SME and help nurture an incredibly successful project.
About the Author
Jayath Jayarathna represents Southern Cross University, a provider of tertiary education for more than 20 years, with a renewed focus on providing distance education. There are currently 5,000 students benefitting from the flexibility of Southern Cross University’s online courses, in a wide array of study options, including project management.
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