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?If you've read this far and you're interested in Agile, you should take my No-frills Agile Tune-up Email Course, and follow me on Twitter.