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Leadership principles for designers: leading SMEs, part 2

By Jerry Murphy / May 2004

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In Part 1, we pointed out that leadership development isn't only for executives (or project managers, or "leads"), and that communication designers actually have a natural opportunity to develop and apply their leadership skills. This is particularly important in our collaboration with subject matter experts (SMEs).

The commonly acknowledged leadership practices—Example, Vision, Innovation, Empowerment, and Recognition—are critical elements in becoming a complete leader. These will help guide you in your contribution as a member of the overall team, as well as in your relationship with your SME. Here are a few additional "thought balloons" of project leadership that should help enhance your overall contribution to any team and develop a productive partnership with SMEs.


As the "mother of all leadership skills," collaboration enables us to be teammates—to form working relationships of mutual accountability, and to resolve problems and share successes together. How you accomplish this depends on your personal style and the degree of collaboration you're comfortable with.

We've all experienced business relationships that became either too formal or too friendly; finding the balance is really up to you. I've been in situations where I knew I'd be working closely together with a SME for three months and we'd probably never see one another again; alternatively, I've had SME relationships (as a publisher) that lasted for years over many projects. Curiously, some of those intense, three-month "project" relationships have lasted longer on a personal basis than the long-term ones.

In any event, to get to know your SME personally, learn a little about his real-life realities (e.g. getting married in three months, or need to pick a kid up at school every afternoon, etc.). It's also critical to assess the SME's experience in similar projects—SMEs are called upon to make important content decisions based on their expertise, but often at times and on a schedule that they're unaccustomed to. Part of your instructional mission is to assure that your SME is fully aware of the roadmap ahead and to learn for yourself something about previous projects (and good and bad experiences) the SME may have had earlier.

I like to get the formalities done in the first meeting—describe your respective job roles and experience to one another; assure the SME he's important to the process and that you look forward to working together in a productive long-term relationship. Sometimes a project lead will facilitate a kick-off meeting of the entire team, to make introductions, review the project objectives, etc. But if not—and if you're confident in facilitating this kind of meeting—it's a great way to break the ice.

It's also very important to get the SME's own version of reality on his role. I like to acknowledge the SME's selection by his manager as an expression of prestige—"You're the guru!"—but sometimes the reality is quite different. Your project (and you) may be seen as a necessary evil, and the SME may feel stuck with yet another list of to-do's that interferes with the job he's really getting paid for ("While you're getting the beta out on time, please help so-and-so as a SME for the documentation and user training, OK?").

The SME should be your best guide through the content jungle, so be sure to get things started on the right foot, treat the SME as an integral part of team and its success, and include him in relevant meetings and social gatherings.

Who's on the Bus?

A SME with the appropriate skills, knowledge, and attitude will be a star teammate. And most likely you can find a way to work with someone who has most, but not all, of these tools. Inevitably, you'll run into a situation where the wrong person (or no person) has been assigned. You can influence a SME's interest, incentive, and buy-in to a point, but you need the best SME you can possibly get to assure your project's success.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins suggests that organizations that rise to the level of greatness first decide who their talent will be ("Who's on the bus?"), and then work together to determine how to meet their goals. Lesser companies, by comparison, make the mistake of drawing the roadmap first, then enlisting a team of "helpers" to get there as the leader indicates. For better or worse, project teams are often assembled this way, too.

If you can, try to get the best SME "on the bus," then collaborate on the optimal solution. This may not be the "guru" SME, who has all the knowledge or who invented the process, but this person may have an 80 percent travel schedule. You need the time commitment and attention of a true collaborator, whether at-hand or virtually. Where knowledge is the subject matter, an "assistant guru" is sometimes even better than the source in articulating complex ideas. Where skills are concerned, I prefer practitioners who can demonstrate and explain the know-how needed to structure an effective learning experience. SMEs who are already instructors or coaches can also have the advantages of comfort with the training process and experience with what works with the learner audience.


Most likely your project manager (PM) will have the ultimate responsibility of delivering a successful project, but your leadership can be a tremendous help. If you can exert positive leadership in the SME and design domains, your PM should be your friend for life. A productive SME/designer collaboration will considerably reduce the risk of the project going over schedule or budget, or ultimately veering off target with its intended audience. (Remember, the program's ROI will be negative if the intended audience doesn't use it—not music to a client's ears.) Your leadership can save the project from many potentially lethal conflicts.

You should be able to rely on your PM to maintain control of the process and schedule phases, but SME reviews represent an area where your leadership and collaboration can be a huge positive influence on the project.

SME reviews at each stage (content outline, drafts, storyboards, etc.) are critical gates through which the project must pass. We're all used to changes, edits, and neglected details caught later than we had hoped. But the review schedule can't become a sketchbook for the SME's (or, for that matter, the designer's) thought process—"I know that's what I said, but it's not what I meant!" A good project manager can help you "close accounts" as you move through development, so it's clear to everyone that beyond a certain point, content (or features, etc.) are "frozen," since the time-and-money cost of doubling back to make changes will be prohibitive.

A SME collaborator who has an aerial view of the subject matter—and of the project's learning and business objectives—will be a responsible partner in the development process. That's where your collaboration and coaching become invaluable. A less experienced (or less responsible) SME may not realize the finality of content decisions until she sees them take form further along in the development process, when changes are exponentially more costly. Some people have trouble giving up the perceived "freedom" of making changes at any point; others feel the need to impose their will and authority to make a point. Your leadership of the process can keep the project on track.


For some SMEs, particularly career technical/scientific people, the quest for perfection may be an ongoing career goal, but it can kill your project. You need to acknowledge a SME's high standards, but also teach him the fine art of knowing when "good enough" means sufficient to meet this project's objectives within the time and resource constraints.

For example, your sales force may need to explain the basic technology to a prospective customer, not deliver a doctoral dissertation. So be up front about your values, define "excellence" and "success" in terms of the project's overall objectives, and set the bar for a reasonable balance of quality, budget, and schedule.

SMEs usually live in the "quality" sphere of this equation, and the idea of quality can often morph into technical elaboration (see "Simplicate" below). But the creative partnership you want to cultivate with a SME can also get out of control. I once worked on a video program with a scriptwriter/SME who thought it would be great to set his explanation of wave mechanics to a musical background from "Rhapsody in Blue." It took a lot of persuasion (and documented proof) on my part to convince him and the PM that the royalty due the Gershwin family would more than double our entire budget. We solved the problem with some very good, royalty-free library music.


We can all lose the forest for the trees at times, but a SME under pressure to "get it right" is subject to a loss of perspective that can distract him from true accuracy or correctness. Say you want to create a chart to illustrate a 15 percent upward trend in the Dow-Jones Industrial Average over the past 12 months. An overzealous SME might be distracted by:

  • Detail—"We should show the DJIA open and close for all 52 weeks."
  • Completeness—"We should also show comparisons for the S&P 500 and NASDAQ for the same period."
  • Precision—"The 12-month rise in the DJIA was actually 14.68 percent."

So much of a SME's knowledge may be internalized and "second nature" that your task will be to deconstruct and simplify it for the audience, to get it down to a "tell-it-to-my-grandmother" level of simplicity and go from there.

One of my favorite mottos—"Simplicate and add lightness"—comes from renowned aircraft designer Ed Heinemann. What's so great about this perspective is that it turns our impulses upside down, forcing us to actively simplify the content by reshaping it. This point of view also respects the SME's body of knowledge, seeking true clarity rather than simply "dumbing down" the material through reduction.

Analogy, metaphor, or other concrete illustrations are very useful in communicating with your SME, whether or not you use them in the product. I once worked with a world-renowned geologist who really understood how to get a point across. He illustrated the complexity of tapping into a mile-deep oil deposit by comparing it to finding a raisin buried somewhere within a multi-layer cake—simple enough for my grandmother!

Collaborating with the right SME, cooperating in an orderly development process, and pursuing balance and simplicity…sounds great, doesn't it?

The fact is that following the common guidelines of leadership practice, and making your values explicit, go a long way toward this ideal. As a communication designer, leadership is your business, too. You'll enhance your critical collaboration with SMEs, help make your next project a win, and make yourself a contribution to any team. Here's wishing you success!

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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