Setting the Table for Success Part 1: Forming Winning SME-Writer Teams

©2015 Mark Henderson

In my profession as a consulting technical writer, I have a critical dependency on the subject matter experts, or SMEs, to create technically valid deliverables on a schedule. Nobody knows the guts of the matter better than the SME. Even if I bring some previous experience with and knowledge about whatever subject I am starting, I like to paraphrase one of Liza’s best lines from the film, Gone With the Wind:  “I don’t know nuttin’ about…no [fill in the blank]!” I look to the SME—first, to help me understand whatever it is they know or do in the context of my mission (such as a procedure, or a plan, or user’s guide). Next, after I develop my first cut, I need the SME to validate the product. That is why this relationship is critical, not just for me, but for the quality and schedule of the product.

An interdependent relationship between the SME and technical writer is critical to the quality and schedule of the product.

Over the years, I’ve teamed up with numerous SMEs to produce a myriad of documents. And for the most part, I’ve been blessed with great SMEs—highly competent and sharing the same priorities. However, some of these successful relationships didn’t always start out like Cinderella and the handsome Prince; rather some started out like Cinderella and the step-sisters, and it was ugly. Personalities aside, most, if not all, of these latter relationships could have been improved had someone taken the time to set the table for success. Let me explain.

Most of these “slow starts” initially shared a general common initial roadblock:  That is, they weren’t set from the beginning to succeed. They weren’t initially created to be interdependent relationships. I’ve even showed up to visit SMEs who were totally surprised at my appearance and why I was there! From my knothole, that is never a good way to start.

Many “slow starts” happen because they weren’t set from the beginning to succeed.

I’ve also had SMEs who were wary of me, but more so, of what I was tasked with producing, suspecting that whatever I produced was going to negatively impact their livelihood, or at least the way they did what they did day-in and day-out.

So, how do we, as a client–consultant team, set the table for success? The answer that I’ve heard promulgated from professionals of “my feather” (i.e. other technical communicators) is the project kick-off meeting. I respectfully disagree; I think the project kick-off meeting is too late. I believe that SME discussion needs to be a client in-house meeting:  Why the business needs to expend the resources to do this—what are the business reasons; why the SME was selected; what does the SME need (extra resources, schedule realignments, etc.) from the organization to be successful. Whatever needs to be communicated to get SME buy-in and to make him or her not only available for, but committed to the project and “resourced” for project success.

The SME discussion needs to be a client in-house meeting, before the project kick-off meeting.

After y’all talk among yourselves, of course, I love seeing my SME(s) at the project kick-off, at least when practical and that formal meeting doesn’t terribly jack with their day right out of the bag. But, I observe during project kick-off meetings whether my SMEs are on-board “GO-TEAM-GO!” guys, or whether they feel like someone just dropped another task on their already over-subscribed task plate. Regardless, I am going to strive to create the interdependent relationship that we all need to be efficiently successful because I really like happy endings!

So, let me end this thought paper on a happy note:  We had a project kick-off at a client’s site, my project SME walked into the room at exactly meeting start-time, the meeting was over in 15 minutes, and ‘Joe SME’ escorted me out onto the floor. He says, “Thank God you’re here! If they didn’t bring you on, they were going to try to make me write these…!” That, friends, is interdependent relationship Bonus-land! And yes, it created a very happy ending:  Together, Joe and I created the full scope of clear, concise, & valid task procedures ahead of schedule. And to my knowledge, they’re still in use today.

Joe SME escorted me out onto the floor and said, “Thank God you’re here! If they didn’t bring you on, they were going to make me write these…”

[In the second installment of this thought paper, I’ll discuss in greater depth some specific methods for setting the table for success to create effective and efficient SME-writer teams.]