By Darrell G. Stiffler, PMP:

Subject matter experts (SMEs) are generally a very valuable asset to a project manager (PM). However, as a PM, you must be prudent in how much authority and control is given to or taken by a SME. Additionally, you must be aware that a SME can slowly erode your authority, even without a direct confrontation.  When a PM begins to have the authority slowly taken away by a SME, it is called “SME creep.”

I’ve been there. You have been assigned a project to manage and you don’t have experience in the area that you’re about to manage; a project that could make or break your career.  As Frank, the boss, gives you your assignment, you’re wondering if he is speaking English. He is throwing acronyms and technical jargon at you so fast that your head is swimming. However, as if to wish you lots of luck, he reassures you by saying, “Now I am asking Bob, our SME in this area, to give you support and be there to help, if you should need him. Of course, he has his full time job, and so he may be a little slow in responding to you.”

Just great. You’re responsible for the project – assuming you can untangle the jargon into plain English – and someone else has all the knowledge. Your team is looking to you for guidance and direction. Bob is working a 50 hour work week, just trying to keep his head above water. You want to set up a meeting with Bob.

You send Bob an email and say, “What is a good time for us to meet to talk about this project?” You’re trying to be understanding and cooperative. That is a nice consideration. However, you are sending the wrong message to start the project. What you are subliminally saying is, “I recognize your time is more valuable than mine, so I will let you take the lead.”

Some may disagree with my interpretation of this situation, and that is OK. I realize there are SMEs out there that would not take it that way and would be thankful that you where being considerate. Then there are others that would, perhaps subconsciously, take it just the way I presented it. Bob sends you back an email stating that he will be able to squeeze you in tomorrow at 5:30 PM, knowing that the standard working hours are 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM at his office. You realize that you are a salaried “professional” and sometimes (most of the time) you have to work a “professional day” (which means no overtime), so you agree. Strike two for you. By letting Bob set the location, you once again are giving him the upper hand and implying that you must go to Bob instead of him coming to you.

You show up at his office two minutes early. He is on the phone talking “technical speak.” He motions for you to come in. He raises up one finger, indicating that he will just be a minute. So you sit there looking around the room at all the technical posters and books that have multi-syllable words in the title. You glance at your watch and that one finger minute has turned into ten minutes and Bob’s conversation shows no sign of slowing down.

Strike three. Bob obviously does not respect your time or he would have ended the conversation when you walked into the room. You haven’t spoken a word about the project and you have already lost control.

It just goes downhill from here. After you have waited for 15 minutes, Bob finally gets off the call and apologizes profusely. Don’t let that fool you. You begin the conversation by giving him a little background on yourself. He stops you after about two minutes into your opening and says, “Frank,” (your boss), “tells me you’re a little ‘weak on experience’ on this project.” He clears his throat. “Don’t worry, I know enough about this project for both of us.” This is another bad sign. He does not want to listen to you because he thinks he knows everything, and the boss has confided in him that you are “weak” on the subject.

I could go on with this scenario, but that would be just more to read and you wouldn’t get much out it except more ways of identifying that you were in trouble.

Consider this approach: Interrupt Bob and say that you are glad he is on the team. This is very subtle way of telling him he is a team member, not the team leader. Secondly, say, “This meeting has run over the time I had allotted. Do this for me,” (in a friendly tone), “put together a list of the deliverables. Do you know how to do a WBS? After drafting a WBS, would you put together resource requirements with roles and responsibilities, and then a time estimate, based upon your suggested resource requirements, and show me a time line and the critical path? You’re probably the best choice to do this since you are so familiar with the project requirements.”

Wow, what did you just do?! By him making the statement that he knew enough for the both of you about the project, he just said, “I am the only person that knows what to do.” So you loaded him up with enough work to “choke a horse”!

If he is all “techie,” he won’t know how to do those tasks, so he will have to refer back to you for guidance and it will be clear that you have taken back the leadership role. If he does know how to do all those assignments, that’s great; you can grade his papers. In either case, you are clearly the one in charge. Be fair with your evaluation of his work, but make it obvious that you are supervising him, not just taking everything he does as gospel. This will reinforce your authority. If you can, get together a committee that you obviously run and put his work in front of a committee, reinforcing the point that he is part of a team.

As with most everything in project management, this is a “situational” scenario. You must adapt to the personally of the SME and the operational process assets of your organization. I hope you are never put in this situation. However, if you are, you might consider this approach.

Good Luck.

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