There’s a Norwegian fairytale that I’m sure you’ve heard. It involves three persuasive goats, a hideous troll, and a bridge. Depending on your business, the subject matter experts in your organisation might be your hideous troll.
By nature, they’re much the same.
They’re guarding the gateways to knowledge, and beyond them is a promised land of lush pastures that will fatten you up.
When their knowledge is challenged, or they are suddenly not in control of the message, they can get very pedantic. They’ll stop your progress, come back to you with all kinds of corrections and excuses. They’ll throw your publishing into the creek, in other words, leaving you to find an alternative.
If you manage to find your way around this person, and start having a good time in the beautiful lush grass, you’ll soon find yourself toe-to-toe with a pyssed off troll — er — expert.
Subject matter experts become grumpy and ugly not because they are trying to make your life difficult. Most of the time it’s because they feel threatened.
Suddenly, they’re not being asked to create everything. Someone else is doing it.
By putting yourself into their shoes, you will be able to make an ally out of this most fearsome adversary. Should you be able to achieve this, you will have a friend for life.
A checklist for getting a
troll subject-matter expert on your side (and keeping them there)
- Remember they’re the expert. You need their help; they’re not obliged to help you. If they speak, listen.
- Spend time listening to their stories and understanding their perspectives. It’ll show you the best approach by giving you an insight into who this person is and why they know so much.
- Be specific about what you want them to tell you. If you haven’t prepared ahead of time, you’ll either waste their time with vague requests, or they’ll waste yours with endless stories. (Pro-tip: It’s wasted time because even though the stories are gold, you won’t be prepared for them, so they’ll sail past you.)
- Treat them with respect and grace.
- Thank them before and afterwards for being generous with their time.
- Summarise back to them what they’re telling you, so they know that you have understood what they’re saying. Simply nodding, smiling, or making ‘uh huh’ noises won’t cut it.
- Only take up as much time as you promised to take. If you need more time, book it for a second session.
- Learn to detect and deflect fear. If you are consolidating website authors (for example) and taking control over a website section away from them, understand that they’ll be defensive. They may have built that entire corner themselves and be extremely proud of it. Your job is to de-fizzle them, reassure them that their work wasn’t wasted, and then get them to work with you instead of against you. Detecting (and deflecting) fear is your number one skill here.
- Know enough about the subject to have an intelligent conversation. If you’re talking to someone about pipeline design, for example, at least have a handle on basic concepts and terminology, like support spans and thermal expansion. And if you don’t know it, prepare ahead of time!
- Remember; When you’re under pressure, you’ll fall as far as your preparation. You won’t rise to the occasion.
Working with subject matter experts is a lot like negotiation, and a lot like persuasion. If you don’t know how to do either of these things, that’s a clue for what to start studying.
This kind of thing is really important when you start thinking about how you represent your business.
Take, for example, the case study. Yes, you want to include the person who worked with you most of the time. But if there was a subject-matter expert who provided input to a project, make sure they’re also included. It’s a gracious thing to do given how much knowledge these people hold. You’d be silly to exclude them.
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