07 July 2019

The Team needs SMEs not SIZs

In both the boardroom and on the battlefield, leaders require input from Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to make timely and accurate decisions. There is far too much information available for a single person or leadership team to synthesise effectively and good use of SMEs can be the difference between success and failure. If not lead effectively, SMEs can quickly turn into Single Issue Zealots (SIZs), become obstructionist and degrade the mental bandwidth of the entire team. 


As a leader of SMEs

How can leaders maximise the effectiveness of their SMEs to ensure their team is safe and effective?

  • Ensure that the overall mission is clear to everyone and relentlessly reinforce it. Utilise regular huddles or check-ins to confirm main and supporting efforts and provide opportunities for team members to back brief progress and intent.
  • Ask the right questions of your SMEs. Avoid broad questions or statements that place all of the responsibility and risk onto an SME. Instead of ‘what do you think we should do?’, try ‘how have you dealt with this situation in the past’ or simply ‘what is your recommendation?’. If time permits, don’t put them on the spot, ask them to research multiple options and schedule a time for back-brief.
  • Encourage cross talk and lateral problem solving between teams and SMEs and involve SMEs in broader planning and wargaming activities. Their journey to become SMEs has exposed them to multiple facets of the business. Exploit it.
  • Set standards in your team that doesn’t allow for negative language such as ‘it’s not my job’. If the task or request is in support of the Main Effort, it is everyones job. This statement has become a combat indicator of overall team cohesion as I work with different clients.

As an SME

You hold this position due to your qualifications and experience in a particular field, but you are not a one trick pony and have far more to give the team than your position description suggests.

  • Utilise pamphlets, SOPs, Safe Work Instructions, policies, procedures and other guiding documents to support the team and the main effort, not white-ant the plan and credibility of the leadership team. In the long term you will also build collateral and when the occasion comes that you have to veto a plan or an action in your role as the SME, the team will be more receptive.
  • Take every opportunity to coach the broader team in your speciality including other SMEs outside of your field of expertise. This will smooth out stakeholder engagement and lead to an overall increase in speed of execution of each decision cycle.
  • Continue to develop your skills and knowledge in your area of expertise in order to remain relevant.


The differences between an SME or an SIZ are subtle yet can have a significant impact on the team. Be aware of how your SMEs interact within the team and set conditions for them to impart their hard earned knowledge and experience.

Written by : Ben Horton