From time to time, we've all had to tap into our inner Perry Mason to convince a tough Subject Matter Expert (SME) to let us try something new. Many of us can attest to the challenges of working with skeptical, change-resistant, know-it-all, or overly-involved SMEs. And in many cases, these pesky SMEs are the very people whose strangle-hold over training content has perpetuated the very problems intended to be addressed by training!
Of course, most SMEs aren't out to annoy you. Some simply feel they have a better grasp of the brand, the product, the "real" problem, or the needs of the target audience. And, while it's part of our job as trainers to listen to our SME's input and allow their ideas to inform our designs, it's also our obligation to act as a voice of reason, a content filter, and a designer.
As designers we must clearly communicate our value to the SME, be prepared to provide supporting evidence for our design choices, and maintain our professional integrity. Does that means it's always possible to convince a skeptical SME to abandon a beloved PowerPoint template or re-design a dated team-building exercise? No. But at least if you're armed with some tips, you can start to make headway.
When people ask me how I ended up as a training designer I usually respond that I "wandered" into it. While that's partly true, the fact is I've been doing something pretty well to have thrived in my profession for as long as I have. And, as I've grown more experienced, I've learned to temper my humility with a dose of self-confidence so that leaders, clients, co-workers, trainees, and SMEs feel comfortable placing their training in my hands.
Reluctant to sing your own praises? Here are some tips to keep in mind:
In cases where a SME thinks that you're simply a vehicle for translating their brilliant vision to the page (i.e. I'll think of everything and you just type it up make it look nice...), then you may need to use some reverse psychology to get buy-in for your design. One trick I've used is to actually convince the SME that your idea was theirs! When describing your work to the SME, use phrases like, "I was inspired by your great work on ____" or "This design is really just your ideas re-conceived as training material..."
Yes; this can be hard to swallow, and no, it doesn't work on every difficult SME but it may be a good technique to use when you've tried everything else.
While it's good to hang onto your principles and maintain your professional integrity, don't adhere to your beliefs so strenuously that you jeopardize the outcome of the project. If a stubborn SME refuses to relent:
Remember, bringing a SME to the point where they won't even listen to you does neither of you any good.
Let's face it, sometimes you're going to come out on the losing end of the fight. It happens. But don't allow resentment or bitterness to poison your working relationship with a SME.
Looking for some tips on how to get through to difficult or skeptical trainees? Check out these two blog posts from the Mindflash archives:
How about sharing some of YOUR tips for working with SMEs? Go ahead & drop us a line.
Trina Rimmer is a learning and communications consultant with twelve years experience designing, developing, and delivering smart, engaging training. When her skills aren't being tested by her children, you'll find her helping others to develop their own training design muscles.