SME Meetings: Productive or Frustrating?

It’s a story as old as Instructional Design. You are provided an expert on a topic to be your Subject Matter Expert (SME). You set up the all-important first meeting with your SME to ask basic questions to determine the scope. You prepare your questions in advance. You read everything you can ahead of time. You start the meeting talking about scope. …..But at the end of the meeting – you have enough content to write a college curriculum on the topic! This was supposed to be a short training course!

(OK – this is an extreme example!)

If this hasn’t happened to you, then I’m sure you’ve seen it happen to your colleagues. On every large project there seems to be a few designers that can’t get the SMEs to scope the content into what is needed for the training rather than everything but the kitchen sink.

Now, this is not the subject matter expert’s fault. It is his or her job to know everything there is to know about the topic. He or she was asked to help you because of this extensive knowledge. So who is at fault?

Sadly, it is the fault of the designer. We as designers need to ask the right questions to get the meeting focused on the right content.

So What Are These Questions?

Some designers are able to ask the right questions almost intuitively. These are the IDs that show up with a pre-built list of questions. However, most of us are human and need some help.

I’ve asked quite a few successful designers and there are several different ways to approach this. I’m going to provide a few questions from one approach in this blog.

1. First, clarify the goal of the program.

You probably already know the goal. After all, it’s on your project charter. You’re sure the SME knows the goal because it was the subject line of the email recruiting him or her. However, you should never skip this step. Why not? Because, by re-establishing the goal, you are setting the framework for the meeting. You are making sure that everyone is on the same page. 

Ask specific questions around the goal at the beginning of your meeting. Asking questions rather than just stating the goal helps to establish full buy-in by all present. Sample questions include:

  • What problem are we trying to solve with this program?
  • What improvement are we trying to make with this program?
  • What do we want the audience to do differently as a result of this program?

Now that you’ve established the goal in everyone’s mind, write it on the top of a flip chart, whiteboard, webinar screen, or on whatever medium you are using. Make sure it is in a place where everyone can see it. You will be referring back to this goal often.

2. Next, establish what the learner needs to know.

That is, what does the learner need to know in order to achieve the goal. At this stage, don’t expect your SME to use a “filter” to only give you the really good things. Ask for everything. Make sure each item that is provided by the SME is separated somehow. (Ex: a separate line on word document, a separate row on an excel spreadsheet, a separate branch on a mindmap, or a separate post-it note) Some questions that will prompt this include:

  • What tasks will the CSR perform?
  • What do the CSRs need to know?
  • What do the CSRs need to do?

3. Establish any non-learning must-haves.

This includes the whole change-management, softer side of the learning program. Ask your SMEs questions such as:

  • What beliefs do the CSRs need in order to adopt this program?

Examples might include, “The CSRs need to believe they will have a shorter average handle time by using the script.”

This also includes changes to the work situation that might be necessary.  Questions to address this might include:

  • Do all the CSRs have the needed technology for the new script system?
  • Are there any work procedures that conflict with the new script system?

These non-learning topics should be moved aside and added to an agenda for the next meeting such as “change acceleration” or “technology enablement”. I suggest moving these aside because unless you do, these will take up the rest of your SME meeting. 

4. Group the content areas into “like” topics.

This is when using post-it notes really pays off. Move around all the different individual content topics until you’ve moved them into similar groupings. For example, you might group all the topics that have to be performed every call into one group and topics that involve escalating a call into another group. 

5. Determine which tasks are critical, performed frequently, or are complex.

I’ve developed a spreadsheet that is very useful for this. Simply transfer the tasks to the spreadsheet and either distribute to your subject matter experts for rating or facilitate a meeting to obtain the ratings.

(To obtain a copy of the worksheet for your team or yourself – please contact me at

6. Begin Designing!

You now have some good information about the tasks. It’s time to start forming the objectives, elminating non-critical content, and mapping out the design.

I welcome your suggestions to improve this process or further aids for designers. Please feel free to send those to me at or post them as a comment on this blog.

6 Responses to “SME Meetings: Productive or Frustrating?”
  1. Mary Verrochi says:

    Hi Leighanne,

    This is a great post, as it provides a methodology that sits well in my grey matter. I especially love the task worksheet.


  2. Moshe Shanon says:

    As for having too much information to teach after your discussion with SME, I would suggest inserting in advance a “reassessment phase” where you indicate what material you belief can be taught using the methods and time allocated or previously discussed. Indicate the alternatives what you think should be left out or what changes should be done to the teaching programs and have all stake holder committed to the new changes.

  3. LaRue Martin says:

    This is a great post (as always!), Leigh Anne!

    Another thing I’ve started doing is asking the SME to help draft quiz questions in these initial scoping meetings, even if they don’t plan to have a quiz! This gets them focused on what they REALLY want the learners to get out of the course, and helps to whittle down that mountain of information.

    Then if the scope starts to mushroom, I revisit the questions list with them to see which topics fit. For the ones that don’t, we ask if these are previously overlooked objectives, and prioritize to whittle back down.

    I’ll definitely be implementing some of these suggestions here too! Thanks again for the great post!

  4. Tom says:

    Great tips for handling those critical SME meetings. Specific questions will certainly help control and guide the information obtained. I’ll certainly be using some of your suggested questions.

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