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How do I keep my subject matter experts happy?

Subject matter experts - who, what, why, where, how

Welcome to the latest Ask a Project Manager blog. This week we’re answering a question about subject matter experts.

I’m working on a large and complicated project at the moment, involving a lot of different subject matter experts.

They’re not in my project team full time but are assigned to it on an “as needed” basis.

How do I keep them happy, without hurting my team?

Thanks for the question.

It’s great to have subject matter experts on your team, even if they are only part-time. Your team can benefit from their knowledge and expertise, and the subject matter experts can give really focussed attention to your project, rather than getting bogged down in unnecessary detail.

Here are some suggestions on how to keep these valuable people happy and engaged:

Trust what they say

That might sound like common sense but you’d be surprised how often a subject matter expert will be over ruled. For example, they might say that a task will take 20 hours but then be over-ruled by a manager saying it will take 10 hours. They are the expert and are in the best position to gauge how long a task will take.

Remember they only work part time

When scheduling the SMEs, don’t forget they are only working a fraction of their week on your project. Often a manager will schedule work based on a full time person doing that job. This leads to your SMEs being overworked, stressed and unproductive. Remember to include time for meetings, documentation and other time consuming activities, which will eat into the time available.

Be very explicit about their role

As the SMEs are only joining your project on an ad hoc basis, it’s likely they will end up doing your work on top of their day job unless it is made very clear what expertise they will be providing. By making it clear that they have SME responsibilities for a defined portion of their time, it’s easier to get that enforced. For example, if you document that 25% of an engineer’s time will be spent providing engineering advice to your project, it’s easier for them to ensure their line manager only expects them to be available for their “core” role 75%of the working week. This will go some way towards preventing them having to do their full time job plus your 25%.

Make it clear there will need to be compromises

Your SME might provide a huge amount of value to your project in the 25% of their time that they work with you. Yet, it’s not unreasonable to find that you need more than that 25%. This might lead to having conversations with your steering committee and other higher ups about whether you need to hire someone to do the SME role full time. You might need to compromise on the amount of work produced by your project if the amount of time the SME has available can’t be increased. There are lots of different options but you’ll need to be really clear on what is and isn’t reasonable, and whether there are better alternatives.

Emphasise the priorities

When you’ve only got someone part time, you need to make sure that they clearly understand the work priorities. Is there something that must always come first? Are there pieces of work that they can reassign or leave until later? Are there times when they must absolutely be on the project team? It’s critical that these expectations are set up front so that you and your SMEs are on the same page. Not only will it make your project planning easier, it will also make it easier to get your SMEs exactly when you need them.

Help manage their time

Make sure your SMEs don’t become overloaded or find themselves pulled in too many directions. When you’ve only got someone part time, you need to make sure that they clearly understand the work priorities. Is there something that must always come first? Are there pieces of work that they can reassign or leave until later? Are there times when they must absolutely be on the project team? It’s critical that these expectations are set up front so that you and your SMEs are on the same page. Not only will it make your project planning easier, it will also make it easier to get your SMEs exactly when you need them.

I hope this has given you some ideas on how to keep your subject matter experts happy!

If you have any questions you’d like to ask a project manager please send them through in the comments below and your question could feature in the next “Ask a project manager” blog!

And as always, if you’re looking for a fabulous PPM tool, check out Psoda. Sign up for a free trial here.

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