Monthly Archives: August 2012

Who Moved My SMEs?

Working in a team in a large organization? Having to use SMEs? What’s the best way to do that?

SMEs (Subject-Matter Experts, pronounced “Smees”) are an integral part of any large group of developers. They are the guys who know a bunch about how a certain thing operates and are helping the team dealing with it.

Many times they have a special role and title. A Project Manager is an example of a SME — sometimes PMs have multiple teams, so they “visit” each team and help them. A DBA could be a SME, as could an expert in some business process. SMEs know so much they have to get spread around.

SMEs might not have deliverables. Maybe you need the online marketing expert to sit in on team planning sessions while you build-out a new website. They’re spending 2 hours a week with you, but you don’t get a new widget when they’re done.

The problem for Agile teams is twofold. First, is this person on your team or not? From a pigs-and-chickens standpoint, obviously they’re part of the gang. The entire reason for them to be there is to speak up and participate as much as possible. But from a team commitment standpoint, the most they can do is provide feedback on whether they think stories can be accomplished or not. So the answer is “it depends”. They’re a little of both. Pigkens. Chickpigs.

Weirder still is the viewpoint from the SMEs standpoint. So you have a team of specialized experts. They are tasked out to dozens of teams all over the organization. Is this an Agile or Scrum team?

To be more specific: does this team make group commitments to clear, testable deliverables inside of fixed timeboxes? Can they predict when any item on their backlog will be delivered? Is there a Product Owner that prioritizes work and elaborates on how it is to be completed?

I think the answer is no, they are not a Scrum team in any kind of traditional sense. They can certainly use many Agile practices, though, like stand-ups, paired-work, 40-hour-work-week, and so forth.

They also can certainly use Kanban to track and somewhat prioritize their work. Perhaps over a long period and lots of data, you can even start to spot and predict patterns.

The bigger question is: do you really need SMEs? I think in a large organization you end up having them one way or another — it’s just the way the math works out. If you are employing 1,000 people, while 90% of them might be perfectly cross-trained, I can guarantee you that 100 or more are going to be there especially because of a targeted knowledge area that they have mastered that is not easy to share. I’m all for making as many things as possible into skillsets; things like project management, database work, or user interface design. Teams should have various skillsets, and organizations should manage and encourage cross-training.

But as noble of a goal as that is, you just can’t do it with everything, especially in BigCorps. This is the difference between how we’d like the world to act and how it actually is. We run into this in the Product Owner role quite often.

SME’s, and SME groups, are probably here to stay. The question now is: are we managing them as efficiently as we should?

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3 minutes, 3 days, 3 weeks, 3 months, 3 years

With everybody talking about Marissa Mayer and how much she might change at Yahoo, perhaps it’s time to look at some fundamentals. If you want to have an influence on an organization, here are the critical numbers you need to know.

In the first 3 minutes — most likely inside of the first 3 seconds — people will be making judgments of you that will be difficult if not impossible to overcome. Things like social signalling, body language, dialect, relaxation, fitness, odor, race, clothing, and NLP play a critical role here. These things shouldn’t matter. People should only judge you by what’s inside, not what’s outside. The problem is that our brains have evolved in exactly the opposite direction from where our morals have. We instinctively make snap judgments, and they become difficult to change later. That’s just the way it is.

It takes about 3 days of people observing and working with you for you to pass the “smoke test” in organizational change. They are able to somewhat answer the questions “Is this person a lunatic?”, “Can this person be trusted to work alone with important people?”, and “What drives this person?” From here people can begin gossiping about what type of person you are and whether or not you’ll add to the problems or help with the solution.

The 3 week milestone is critical to determining how much traction you are likely to get doing your job. It takes around 3 weeks of meeting lots of people and diving deep into their work for you to figure out what the organization’s real cultural issues are. You can even try a couple of ideas to see what kinds of things fly with them. By three weeks you have a great idea of how far you’ll be able to take folks.

At 3 months, the honeymoon is up. Like milk, outsiders and consultants have a shelf-life, and around 3 months you are becoming more one of the gang instead of an agent for change. (You can still remain an advocate, though). If you’re kicking ass, you can start moving up the ladder or across organizational groups to begin working in a new arena. While there’s still a lot of good you can provide, you will be providing it as a team member, not as a consultant. Note that 3 months is a rough estimate. You might run as long as 6 months in your honeymoon phase.

This is a good time to disengage. If you’re able to help in another area, that’s an option. Or you can hand-off what you’re doing to a fresh set of eyeballs while you coordinate remotely. But a professional realizes that it’s around this time to be either up or out. Once you pass this point, people begin figuring out how to channel your energies in ways to suit them, the organization begins changing you more than you are changing it.

By three years, you are simply another employee. For many, this may be exactly what you want: a steady paycheck and job security. It can be a great and rewarding life, but you are no longer the guy brought in to change things. At 3 years, you are indistinguishable from those you are helping.

Of course, there are counter-strategies. Executives bring teams with them. They rotate senior staff. They limit and control exposure to key personnel to maximize impact. But that’s a longer discussion outside the scope of what most of us might face.

Helping groups change is one of the most rewarding things you can do in life. But whether you’re an outsider just passing through or somebody settling in for the long-haul, you have to understand and play the numbers.

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