Expert Advice

Whose advice are you listening to when building your requirements?

Sure, your end users think they know what they want, but are they the right people to assist you in designing a solution? Maybe not.

 We've all heard the term subject matter expert or SME. In fact, you're a subject matter expert in certain regards if you're being paid to translate end user requirements into design solutions. However, you're likely not the right person to certify that the solution you're suggesting is the right solution. You may do the heavy lifting in creating the requirements, but when push comes to shove, you better make sure you have the right experts to endorse your solution.


What Does a Good SME Look Like?

With your reputation on the line, it's important that you solicit the advice from the right subject matter experts. If your project manager or someone from the business assigns subject matter experts for you, make sure you vet them against the following criteria:

  • Intelligent: It seems like stating the obvious; by definition, a subject matter expert should be intelligent. But, you’d be surprised at the experts that were thrown at me when I was a struggling business analyst. Intelligence extends beyond just subject matter expertise. Your expert should also have a good ability to process, analyze, and articulate what’s in his or her head.
  • Credible: Do others, especially your end users, respect your expert as an authority on the subject of concern? Sometimes, less knowledgeable people are assigned just because they’re available. People pay attention to your advisors and if the wrong experts are involved, it will likely result in problems with acceptance.
  • Available: Of course, the opposite holds true as well. Sometimes experts are assigned, but they’re too busy being experts to help you design a solution. Sometimes, the best experts to help understand a situation or design a solution legitimately have higher priorities and very limited availability. In this case, it’s better to wait on the project than to be in the unenviable position of continually chasing experts down.
  • Personable: To be successful, you must be able to collaborate with your experts. Unfortunately, some people are just difficult to work with, not because they’re hard to understand, but because they haven’t developed enough social skills. In my career, I’ve been screamed at, lied to, and bad-mouthed–more times than I care to admit. This is unacceptable. If the only available expert has a personality disorder, then it’s time to find another project to work on.
  • Passionate: The best subject matter experts are passionate about what they do–that’s in part what makes them experts. This passion is contagious and it bolsters your business case.


You might not have total control over which subject matter experts you'll work with; however, you should have a significant vote. Screen your experts carefully, paying particular attention to: intelligence, credibility and respect, availability, personality, and passion. Without all these qualities, they’re not very useful and you’re wasting your time. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t have any spare time to waste on the wrong people.

About the Author

John Weathington

John Weathington is President and CEO of Excellent Management Systems, Inc., a management consultancy that helps guide organizations to achieve strategic goals, improve critical processes, and leverage the power of information. For over 20 years, John has helped clients of all sizes including an impressive list of Fortune 100 firms to include Visa, PayPal (eBay), Hewlett Packard, Sun Microsystems, Hitachi Data Systems, Cisco, and Silicon Graphics. His unique blend of leadership, management, and technical talent and skills are a rare find in the consulting arena.

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