Instructional designers often find ourselves needing to build relationships—and quickly.
We instructional designers (IDs) rely on a variety of other people in the process of designing and developing training initiatives. We work diligently to address myriad aspects of training materials development, all while trying to stay true to sound adult learning principles.
Successful execution of training projects is built on partnership and collaboration with subject matter experts (SMEs). Simply put, IDs need SMEs—we can't collect, distill, and verify the content for the training program all on our own. IDs cannot possibly know everything about every topic, which is why SMEs hold a critical role in any training project.
Conflict within ID-SME relationships can cause projects to derail quickly. Our personalities, work styles, likes, and dislikes all differ from each other. But regardless of our viewpoints and what we agree on, there is much we can do as IDs to manage those SME relationships, and even prevent conflict altogether.
People can sometimes operate with an inward focus when working with others. Their actions and communication are self-centered:
- “I need them to do this for me.”
- “If you could just do this, then I could do my part.”
When that is shifted to an outward focus, the experience is quite different:
- “What do you need from me to help you do your job?”
- “What challenges are you facing, and how can I help?”
The key for success on training projects is for us IDs to shift to a servant mentality. Here are some practical techniques that will help you serve your SMEs to achieve overall project success.
Guiding Your SMEs
Acting as a guide for your SME is just one way to serve.
At some point, perhaps you've felt frustrated that your SME doesn’t understand instructional design. Yes, SMEs oftentimes are not skilled in design; in fact, it's likely they have time-consuming job responsibilities and commitments apart from the project at hand. As IDs, we are there to own the instructional design responsibilities and all that entails. We should be guiding our SMEs through the process without burdening them with unnecessary information.
Guiding the SME is similar to acting like a sherpa. We should be trail blazing and carrying the heavy load. What can you do for your SME to prepare them? What heavy lifting can you take on to facilitate the forward progression of the project? Work to make the movements of the project simpler for your SMEs.
As you guide your SMEs, provide direction and explain where everyone is going. Do this at the start, at each intersection, and continuously along the way. As you provide direction, offer insight as to what is coming next and what the future holds. While providing direction, it’s also key to identify and communicate with your SMEs about the timing for the project, its milestones, and its deliverables. Of course, this is all connected to the project plan, but there are opportunities to provide more insight as to what will occur next, and when.
During QA review cycles, help them understand and “see” what they need to focus on and look for within the deliverable being reviewed; a small section of the document may have been changed or updated, which they may not otherwise notice. They will appreciate that you saved them from missing it, or from unnecessary lengthy reading.
Adapting for Your SMEs
As you act as a guide for your SME, you will need to be adaptable. That means identifying when it's necessary to stand firm on a certain element versus letting go of an ideal. We IDs know instructional design and the science behind it, but in the end, it’s the client’s project. We play a part, but we don’t own the project the same way the client or SME does. We have to pick our battles.
Flexibility comes into play here, as well. How flexible are you on projects? Does it always have to be your way? And when SMEs offer up solid, workable ideas, are you willing to incorporate them for the sake of collaboration and partnership? Think of it as an olive branch to extend to your SMEs.
Being able (and willing) to make adjustments aligns with flexibility. When faced with hiccups on a project, are you able to allow yourself, and elements of the project, to adapt as needed? Maybe a deadline could be adjusted to help ease the SME’s to-do list a bit. Or is it possible for a meeting to be rescheduled to an earlier date to accommodate a change in the SME’s schedule? What can be adjusted for the benefit of all involved?
All projects should have a wrap-up opportunity or debrief meeting in which project team members come together to share their perspective of the project experience—what they found helpful and what they found difficult. Be proactive and work to have these meetings scheduled soon after the project is completed. Look to these meetings as robust opportunities for continuous improvement. Be humble, and honestly review what could be improved for all parties and aspects of the project. Think about how you all can work better together next time. After all, more business is one of the goals, isn’t it?
Helping Your SMEs
Acting as a guide and being adaptable align with being helpful for your SMEs. Sometimes, from our perspective, this may initially seem like extra work or more time requirements, but it will be fruitful in the end. Try to frequently ask, “What can I do to help my SME in their role on the project?”
Patience is truly a virtue here. The key for IDs is to be patient when responding to others on the project, and to likewise be patient with their responses and feedback. More importantly, be patient with their question, and allow them the opportunity to ask. And reassure them that their questions are valid and beneficial to the project. Think of yourself as a patient advocate for your SME, and think about how you can be proactive.
Be aware, at least at a high level, of the SME's outside commitments. Do you know if they have a vacation scheduled during the project timeline? You should. Help your SME better handle the ups and downs of the project and to manage their time better.
Through all the twists and turns of the project, it's helpful to operate from the mindset of a problem solver. Anticipate what questions your SME will ask, and help them by answering those questions beforehand. Provide additional value by helping the SME understand why those questions are important—help them to connect the dots.
Building Better SME Relationships
All of these elements (guiding, adapting, helping) work together to build the relationship with your SMEs. As you build and nurture that relationship, encounters and collaboration will become easier—even enjoyable. The time you spend building trust and showing your value will pay off for the long term. You’ll be seen as the partner who is easy to work with.
IDs should be the “easy button” in the entire training project development process. Our actions and participation shouldn’t weigh down the project or complicate things. We should be adding value at every turn. We are inserted into the SME’s workday—we should constantly have a pulse on how we can make our time working with them as unobtrusive as possible.
In the end, we are there to help make the client and the SME look good. We are supplying the cape to the SME, allowing them to be the superhero at their organization. As IDs, we need to be comfortable with being behind the curtain as a servant to our SMEs.