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Leadership principles for designers: leading SMEs, part 1

By Jerry Murphy / May 2004

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Think leadership development is only for executives? Think again. Most leadership gurus emphasize that leadership is everyone's business, and not just the province of the executive, manager, or project leader.

Communication designers (writers, instructional designers, information architects, etc.) have a great opportunity to become leaders in the success of their projects. After all, designers perform much of the magic: transforming often complex and disparate information into coherent and effective knowledge outcomes that meet a client's learning and strategic objectives. Why shouldn't we be (and be seen as) leaders?

As all leaders must do, designers rely on the talents of many other professionals along the way; we need project managers to handle business and administrative issues; graphic artists to bring design ideas to life; programmers to make them work; and a good client as our partner for a successful outcome. But the most critical success factor of all may be our collaboration with subject matter experts (SMEs). The basic framework of leadership practice can be a great guide in developing this special relationship and helping make the collaboration work.

Designers and SMEs

The age-old relationship—and sometimes antagonism—between designer and a SME can make or break a project. We know that transforming acronym-laden infobabble into clear writing, compelling illustrations, and lucid instruction can be as much fun as passing a kidney stone. Since the SME can either be our partner or opponent in this process, why not establish a creative collaboration?

As all designers have learned, SMEs can be from Mars. They can be much busier and have "more important work to do" than anyone else. They can be overscheduled, constantly traveling, or simply invisible. And though they possess all the specialized knowledge we will ever need, they're not telling…at least not in a way that's intelligible to anyone else. Or so it sometimes seems.

But we also know that SMEs can be much more than reluctant buckets of knowledge—they can be great collaborators and brilliant communicators in their own right. Some common leadership guidelines can help designers make the most of the situation and contribute mightily to any project. Here are a few to keep in mind as you lead your SME through the obstacles of conceiving and developing a successful project.


From the outset, your professional manner and attitude will set the tone. Your project manager may be designated as the "lead," but your commitment and enthusiasm can be a key success factor for both the product and the process. Be explicit about your own values and standards (e.g. the realistic balance of quality-budget-schedule), your commitment to the project's objectives, and your desire for productive collaboration.

In addition, walk the talk—do your homework and use your SME's time productively. I've found that beginning with a regular schedule of short interviews allows time to digest and return some bite-size feedback to the SME to verify your understanding of the material. Regular meetings also give you a better chance to establish a relationship and cut through any us-them barriers. And try not to limit your SME contact to the content alone. Whenever you can, take some social time to trade a few war stories from previous projects that illustrate your own philosophy and invite similar stories from your SME to learn what values and experiences you share.

Ask questions and listen carefully. You'll demonstrate your respect for the SME's ideas and opinions, and you'll learn a lot too. I always like to ask how a SME got into the field—it's a great way to learn where a SME's passion for the subject matter comes from, and what made it worth becoming an expert in the first place. Jazz musician Ornette Coleman is said to have spent many hours fascinated by observing others at work, from construction workers to artists. Designers can profit from the same curiosity about their SMEs' occupation.


By nature, any form of design is about vision, which immediately puts the designer in an influential position—not only in envisioning the shape of the content and its presentation, but also the outcomes of the entire project. Inspiring a shared vision of success is a critical skill of effective leaders, so look forward, envision your idea of a successful project outcome, share your specific aspirations, and find common ground with your SME and the entire team.

Great projects (like great organizations) often have their own vision/mission statements. A good kick-off for a project is to get together and agree on a statement of vision. Aim high, rather than "Complete five sales training modules for the Gizmo XL," and frame the overall objective of the project at a more strategic and inspirational level: "To send our sales force into the marketplace fully prepared and motivated to rock the industry with the new Gizmo XL." Include some vivid images of success, such as delighted customers, salespeople signing target-busting contracts, etc. Picture your team receiving an award for helping them achieve these goals.

Your SME and the team need to focus on the positive business outcomes of the project, over and above the content or the tactical steps required to complete the job. This strategic view of the future will be your destination on the roadmap of the project's daily progress. The more everyone on the team can converge on a common and ambitious goal, the better they'll collaborate to produce outstanding results.


Leadership development experts remind us that leaders are early adopters of innovation—they experiment, find innovative ways to change, and learn from their mistakes. So, for example, in The Leadership Challenge, authors Kouzes and Posner encourage aspiring leaders to challenge the process through innovation, which would seem to be second nature to a designer. Fundamentally, the teaching/learning process should be seen as a creative challenge, right?

Think of innovation as "applied creativity"; any novel idea is potentially valuable, but innovation realizes that potential by making the idea useful. If your example and vision have helped foster a team atmosphere of creativity and open exchange of ideas, then challenge yourself and the team to develop new and improved ways of doing things. If you consider your project plan to be the road map for reaching your goal, then take some detours and side trips to make the journey more adventurous and fun. Innovative ideas will follow.

One reason many of us got into communication design is that we're nourished by variety: the many situations, areas of knowledge, and potential solutions we encounter on a daily basis. This changing landscape of challenges keeps us alive professionally and hopefully helps us advance the state of the art. But we all find places where the process can be improved, where we can create a tool or template to enhance an illustration, or streamline development time. Much of your effort will be to help your SME "think different" and find creative (and memorable) ways to look at the subject matter. Your leadership can help create a team environment in which everyone has the courage to suggest new ideas and create small wins along the way.


Collaboration is often cited as the mother of all leadership skills. The collective accomplishment of a collaborative team can be really powerful—in its results as well as in the process. A climate of trust, positive interdependence, and shared power makes it possible. By "power" I mean the permission given to each of your teammates to contribute to the project's success, not only from their roles as expert contributors, but as interdependent team members as well.

Think of your team as a learning organization—much of your success will come from the "how" you've learned from each other, from the harmony and "swing" you generate as a group, exceeding the sum of your individual skills and roles. Various cooperative learning exercises such as "jigsaw groups" recognize this model by taking advantage of everyone's concurrent roles as experts and teammates.

Always be open to advice, especially from "cross functional" sources. I count on SMEs for some solid design advice during a project, and I try to reciprocate by making better sense of their processes or content. (This is why my favorite SMEs have some experience as instructors, since they already have an appreciation for the instructional mission and may also be familiar with the specific audience we're addressing.)

Conductor Ben Zander says that inspiration needn't come only from the podium, but can come "from any chair" in the orchestra. So rely on your whole team. A programmer I once worked with became a great sounding board for ideas to simplify our presentation for our intended audience of neophytes. Her own neophyte perspective was valuable because the designer and SME had become too close to the material to see the simplest, most elegant solution. Great ideas can (and should) come from anyone on your team.


Last, but certainly not least, is appreciation—visible, public recognition of individual and team contributions. For some reason, authentic acknowledgement of people's contributions seems to be the scarcest resource in work life today, and it seems even more rare in an era that so often celebrates hyper-compensated CEOs.

While we all know how good it feels to receive appreciation, many of us are hesitant to appreciate others, even with a simple "Thank you" or "Great job." Yet this is one of the most important and powerful skills that great leaders exhibit—the ability to publicly and meaningfully acknowledge excellent contribution.

A good way to start as a team is to meet regularly just to get together—for lunch, for pizza every Friday, at the local pub after work. All great teams I have known have done this…and almost none of the lousy ones ever did. Your collaboration with your SME will benefit from the same personal contact (think of yourselves as a "subteam"). SMEs often need to be acculturated to the kind of communication projects that we designers consider our everyday work; they're usually off applying their expertise elsewhere, not explaining it to others by designing instructional materials or documentation. Since we must establish a close working relationship with their SMEs, it's really the designer's role to take the lead in this acculturation.

I like to start by acknowledging to the team the SME's qualifications and "star quality" where the subject matter is concerned. There are stars everywhere, no matter how arcane the material, and the SME's selection for the project should be seen by all as an acknowledgement of expertise…and leadership as well, since the SME acts as a kind of ambassador to the project, from the distant Land of Subject Matter.

Zander calls this "giving an A…not an expectation to live up to, but a possibility to live into." He tells the story of announcing to his students at the outset that everyone in the class will receive an A for the course, provided they first write him a letter, post-dated upon completion of the course, describing in detail what they have done to receive such an extraordinary grade. The students themselves create the specifics of their own possibilities and excellent achievement—in advance. What better way to begin a project?

As a communication designer, you have a great opportunity to develop your own leadership skills and style. These commonly acknowledged leadership practices will serve as a very good guide. They will enhance your overall contribution to any team, and in particular will really help you in your collaboration with SMEs.

In Part 2, we'll consider a few additional project leadership values that should help you strengthen your leadership profile and develop more productive partnerships.

For further information/inspiration, I suggest the following resources:

1. Collins, J. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don't. HarperCollins, 2001.

2. Kouzes, J. & Posner, B. The Leadership Challenge. Jossey-Bass, 2003.

3. Katzenbach, J. & Smith, D. The Discipline of Teams. John Wiley & Sons, 2001.

4. Mauzy, J. & Harriman, R. Creativity, Inc.: Building an Inventive Organization. Harvard Business School Press, 2003.

5. Zander, R. & Zander, B. The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. Penguin USA, 2002.


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