Guide Your SMEs to Successful Outcomes—for Everyone

A high-level (and humorous) look at the Seven Subject Matter Expert Archetypes and how to manage them in the way that works best for them.

In an effort to define and describe working with our subject matter experts (SMEs), colleagues and I developed the Seven SME Archetypes. Our point in crafting this high-level (and humorous) look began with only the best of intentions and precisely because we rely so heavily upon our SMEs.

Successfully completing projects means we need clear guidance on how best to work with them so we are all successful together. (We suspected others needed this guidance, too.) They are a group of individuals needing to be managed in the way that works best for them. Not us. After all, their SME work is done in addition to everything else they are responsible for in the respective roles. Meet our SMEs:


Overscheduled, overworked, and overwhelmed. Habitually double or triple booked. They travel on business frequently without updating their calendar. Only might be found at their desk every third Tuesday between 1:37 and 2:12 pm.

To do:

  • Set the meetings—with scheduled reminders.
  • Confirm meetings two to 24 hours in advance.
  • Don’t take voicemail for answer. Track your SME down in person if needed.

Busy Bee SME

Go-to person in their department—for everything. Enthusiastic about your project and excited to help, but never available. Instead, they are constantly in various project meetings, troubleshooting others’ problems, and making sure no birthday passes without bringing a cake and a card.

To do:

  • Respect their time and full calendars.
  • Ensure meetings are prepared and ultra-focused.
  • Recurring meetings planned well in advance are best, though flexibility is a must.

Control Freak SME

Characterized by extreme over-confidence in their ability to train others—to the point of dictating every aspect of work others are doing in this realm. They prefer talking over listening and have strong opinions about every minute detail.

To do:

  • Validate their opinions and be flexible enough to incorporate their ideas when they work.
  • Allow them to voice whatever is top of mind for them at the beginning of each meeting to prime them for listening when it is your turn.
  • Hold tight to the reins or you will never get them back.

Clueless SME

Confused and dismayed by their assignment to your project. Even though authorized by their supervisor to speak for their area of the business, they refuse to make any impactful decisions or fully answer questions. Instead, they feign ignorance, and attempt to pass the proverbial “buck.”

To do:

  • Constantly reinforce that their expertise is valuable and very much needed.
  • Instead of asking them to make decisions, provide a set of choices.

Include-It-All SME

They are true experts in their subject but are unable to see things from the perspective of the novice. Insistent that every detail about a process or procedure, no matter how small or inconsequential, is important and must be included. They suddenly remember key details late in the process when the end is clearly in sight.

To do:

  • Make space to allow them to communicate their knowledge, skill, and expertise. You will understand the topic better. Then continue to be judicious about what is presented to new people.
  • Move unused information to lists for future use.

Unfocused SME

Have trouble following any agenda but their own (the one seemingly in their heads). They are well intentioned but tend to hijack meetings with tangential discussions and interesting information that may not actually be needed. When late to meetings, they insist on restarting to make sure they have not missed anything.

To do:

  • To avoid alienating this SME, allow them to share their off-topic ideas as often as is feasible. Possibly one-on-one.
  • Engage with them and provide other avenues for their ideas to come to fruition.

Unreliable SME

Smart and capable, but terrible at time management and meeting deadlines. They are always ready to provide a creative excuse for incomplete or missing assignments. And usually have no trouble explaining the latest crisis, in grave detail, that prevented them from meeting a deadline.

To do:

  • Demonstrate your empathy with them and their challenges.
  • Allow them as much flexibility as timelines allow.
  • Engage one-on-one to get back on track.

Don’t Let Them Become the 8th Archetype

Subject matter experts are vital to our success. They bring experience, expertise, knowledge, skill, key contacts, and insights into organizational culture.

So how do your SMEs avoid becoming the eighth archetype? Ensure they participate—from start to finish. How? Here are few ideas:

Hold a Project Kick-Off Event: This is the event where everyone’s roles and responsibilities are defined, calendars synced up, goals and priorities laid out, sign-off authority established, communication preferences identified, agreement on how project updates are communicated and how often, and schedule for completion shared. It is intended to bring clarity about the various expectations of everyone involved.

Communicate in a Timely Manner: Ask SMEs to:

  • Set time aside for project work on a schedule that is conducive to your project and the team.
  • Read and respond to e-mails in a timely fashion.
  • Raise concerns and needed updates with the project team—do NOT wait until the next meeting.

Multi-Task Efficiently: It is rare to be able to offload regular work to focus solely on SME project work. SMEs are expected to complete the SME work on top of their regular work and deadlines. Help them to multi-task efficiently.

Set Routines: Insist that:

  • All routine meetings, one-on-ones, sub-group meetings, and project check-ins are scheduled well into the future, using a recurring calendar feature.
  • Meeting agendas are created and sent in advance of meetings, with notifications/reminders set.

Appreciate and Encourage: Delays and missed deadlines put project success at risk. To minimize the risks:

  • Encourage project team members to alert others when they are overwhelmed and/or likely unable to meet a deadline.
  • Enact remediation strategies, like reassignment of roles, when barriers to success arise.
  • Continually remind each member of the team just how much their work is valued, appreciated, and how essential they are to project success.
  • Celebrate milestones along the way and start meetings with good news whenever possible.
Dawn J Mahoney, CPTD
Dawn J. Mahoney, CPTD, is the program content manager for Training magazine. She also owns Learning in The White Space LLC, a freelance talent development (“training”) and instructional design consultancy. She is passionate about developing people through better training, better instructional design, and better dialog. E-mail her at: