How to transform your relationships with SMEs and stakeholders

May 7, 2021

Producing a learning course or programme is rarely a one person job. Even if you’re a digital learning whizz or an expert virtual classroom facilitator, more often than not you will be working with subject matter experts (SMEs) and stakeholders. But working with them isn’t the same as operating as an effective team. If you’re done with fighting for your ideas and arguing over the details, read on.

Common challenges working with SMEs and stakeholders

Let’s get straight to it. Working relationships with SMEs and stakeholders can be fraught. Although you share the common goal of producing and publishing an effective piece of learning, you’re likely to have slightly different priorities within that which can make it feel like you’re pulling in different directions. Do these priorities sound familiar?

You: I know what makes a learning experience effective and enjoyable for learners, and it’s important to me that I deliver on that. This is my specialism and I want to create something I believe in.

SME: I’m accountable for the learning points here, so the content has to be accurate. If something goes wrong further down the line and it wasn’t covered in the learning materials, it could come back on me. Better safe than sorry.

Stakeholder: I’m investing a chunk of my budget in this piece of learning, as well as my team’s time. I need to get some return from that investment in order to justify the spend.

Working patterns to avoid

There are two common ways of dealing with the conflicting priorities above. You might have tried both at various points.


Compromise and consensus

In order to keep harmony in the team, you give everyone’s point of view equal weight and come up with a solution that everyone is comfortable enough with to proceed. Perhaps that’s persuading your SME to use bullet points and simpler language in their long paragraphs. Or scaling back your design approach to there are just a few elements from the original concept.

Seeking consensus in this way keeps everyone on side, but ask yourself: in your efforts to create something that works for everyone, have you ended up with something that works for no one?

Seek forgiveness, not permission

The other common approach is to go it alone. You trust your expertise and forge ahead with your plan for the piece of learning, keeping your SME and stakeholder at arm’s length. You might ask them for very specific inputs such as clarifying some complex content or providing an example, but you avoid involving them in the concept until it’s complete. Then you cross your fingers and hope they sign it off!

Seeking forgiveness not permission for your ideas means you create something that you’re proud of, but at what cost? Your working relationships? Not benefitting from your colleagues' expertise? A lack of support promoting the end result to the business and learner?


There is a better way. Having joined many client teams to create learning programmes over the last decade, we have identified the dynamics of successful teams and built that into our processes at Lima Delta. Here, we give away some of our secrets so you can transform your relationships with SMEs and stakeholders.


A working relationship that works

An effective working relationship is one where all three parties - learning designer, SME and stakeholder - have a shared goal and a shared attitude to the project, but separate responsibilities. Here are four tips to try on your next project:

1. Assign clear roles and responsibilities

This might sound obvious, but how often do you formally agree roles? It’s incredibly common for this stage to be skipped at the start of a learning project, which can lead to problems. When nobody has the final say, everyone has the final say and decisions are difficult.

So before you start working together, agree upfront who is responsible for which elements of the project. It also helps to choose an overarching Decider - somebody who has the final say on all decisions if required. This idea comes from Jake Knapp’s excellent book, Sprint. Check it out for the rationale behind the Decider role and how to make it work effectively.

2. Experiment together

The finality of project decisions can panic team members and make them want to stick to the status quo. It’s why it can be tough to convince SMEs to reduce content, for example. They feel nervous about the ‘in or out’ decision.

So instead of making all of your decisions final, treat every decision as an experiment. This gives you all the freedom to bring new ideas to life, interact with them and test them, before making a better informed final decision.

3. Collaborate from the start

You need to work as a team to feel like a team. This means true collaboration from the start, not coming up with your own ideas and then trying to get buy-in from your teammates later. Because if you’ve come up with your own idea in that time, chances are that they have too. Then you’re starting from opposing positions.

Instead, work together from the very beginning. Agree goals, share ideas openly and truly listen to each other's perspectives. Remember, you shouldn't be trying to make people ‘feel’ involved from the start, you should be making the most of different people's expertise from the start in order to end up with a better result all round.

4. Show, don’t tell

When you and your SME or Stakeholder have different opinions, it’s tempting to try and talk them round. Without evidence to back you up, this can be tough. Look for opportunities to show, rather than tell them that something will work better.

Put your experimental approach into practice and test your ideas using prototypes and a pilot group of learners. An A/B test of the two ideas on the table will give you some data on which approach is most effective for your particular audience group. Remember, the data might not always back you up, so go into this open minded.


Transform your working relationships today

When you work with us at Lima Delta, clear roles and experimental attitude are part of the deal. We’ll create an effective digital learning experience for your learners and model a collaborative, evidence based way of working along the way.

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