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Hazards of the SME

Subject Matter ExpertAgile teams are often configured to make use of a SME (Subject Matter Expert). A SME is typically someone not on the Scrum Team, who brings specialized knowledge, skills, or expertise needed by the team. The team doesn't have everything required, so we give them access to a SME. The SME's contribution may be in the domain, technology, or other skills such as problem solving. Sounds great, right? Not so fast…

Having been a SME at various times, and seen the use of SMEs at others, I have observed a variety of challenges in getting the value out of this arrangement. Here are a few observations, and some possible experiments…

Lack of availability

Sure, you have a SME, but is the SME available to the team enough to make a difference? As an SME, and in cases where I have seen other SMEs, I have seen the situation where the SME is stretched so thin that it is difficult to schedule time with the SME or to get timely turnaround on questions. Either the SME's limited time becomes a bottleneck, or the SME is simply bypassed.

Perceived lack of availability

Closely related is the problem of perceived availability - the team perceives that the SME is very busy, so avoids scheduling time with the SME or asking questions of the SME so as to "not overload them".

We don't know what we don't know

A SME relationship is typically a "pull" relationship. The team "pulls" the SME "as needed". How does the team know when they need the SME? In many cases (especially if the team has limited experience in the SME's realm), the team doesn't know what they don't know, and hence doesn't know when to pull the SME into a discussion.

We don't like to ask for help

Human beings, and teams, may have a reluctance to ask for help. One aspect is developmental; as the Leadership Circle Profile reveals, we may respond to situations from a "protecting" stance, where asking for help feels like a threat to our safety or identity. Also, the team or organizational culture may promote "appearing to have the answers" over "asking for help". Whatever the cause, a reluctance to ask for help can translate to getting inadequate support from the SME.

The unfriendly SME

The SME themselves may come with unhelpful human dynamics - perhaps being perceived by the team as critical or pushy. This, too, may come from protecting or controlling reactive stances of the SME. (I recognize that I've been this SME!)  What team wants to invite collaboration with someone who puts them on the defensive, or won't listen to what the team knows?

The bearer of bad news

The information that the SME brings to the table may not be welcome. What if the SME's input reveals that the team needs to rework what has already been done, reveals a much larger potential backlog of work, or exposes unforeseen obstacles? A team that doesn't adapt well to change or is operating in an environment where unwelcome surprises are… unwelcome… may not want to hear what that SME has to say.

Not a team member

Team formation models such as Tuckman's stages of group development or the Drexler Sibbet Team Performance Model tell us about the dynamics of forming an effective team. The SME, being an outsider, is not a member of the team and creates different team dynamics. Even a "not unfriendly" SME may not be fully engaged by the team due to the dynamics at play.

So, what can be done?

Here are some thoughts that might be worth experimenting with…

  • Avoid SMEs - Can the team be formulated to have the necessary knowledge, skill or expertise so that it doesn't need to engage with an outsider?
  • Ensure capacity - Make sure that the SME truly has capacity, and the priority, to serve the team. What does the SME need to have taken off their plate to support this team adequately? How will you know that the SME is available enough, or not? How will you know that the SME is no longer needed by this team and can take on other responsibilities?
  • Create knowledge transfer - What needs to happen so that the team acquires the necessary skills / knowledge / expertise so that it does not need to rely on a SME?
  • Pay attention to team dynamics - Is the SME a good fit to work with the team? Can the SME be folded in with the team in ways that promote healthy team dynamics and high collaboration?
  • Watch the environment - Is there anything about the team, culture or environment that encourages avoidance of the SME? Is it easy for the SME to collaborate with the team? What factors can be changed to improve the chances of success?
  • Evaluation - What feedback loops can be put in place to detect whether the SME is being involved adequately and that the collaboration is working?

Summary

Use of a SME is one way to get teams access to skills, knowledge or expertise that - for some reason - cannot be achieved within the team. However, use of an SME comes with its own hazards. I hope that this article provides some useful thoughts for detecting and addressing the hazards of the SME. And I am curious - what has worked - or not worked - for you?


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Andrew Smith, Principal Architect

Andrew Smith, Principal Architect

Andrew is a Principal Architect at ISE and leads ISE’s Agile community. He recently earned two new Agile certifications: ICAgile Certified Expert – Agile Coaching (ICE-AC) and ACI Certified Teams Transformation Coach (ACI-CTTC). Andrew is passionate about creating great teams, great software and great customer experiences, and is constantly looking for ways to adapt industry experience and best practices into ISE. In his free time, Andrew enjoys dancing Argentine Tango, public speaking with Toastmasters International, and Yoga.

Andrew Smith, Principal Architect

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