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TK Top Session: 3 Tips for Working With SMEs and Stakeholders


Mon Aug 24 2020

TK Top Session: 3 Tips for Working With SMEs and Stakeholders

One of the things I’ve always said about working with your stakeholders and subject matter experts (SMEs) is that you need each other. They have the information you need to solve their problems. But when you have misaligned expectations, or if you’re not speaking the same language, I can tell you from experience that any project you’re working on can quickly go off the rails.

Here are my top three tips for working with your stakeholders and SMEs (while also maintaining your sanity).


Tip #1: Help Them Understand the Design and Development Process

When you’ve been working as an instructional designer or e-learning developer, it’s easy to forget that folks outside of our industry have little to no contextual awareness about what we do. The onus is on us to help our stakeholders understand our processes, and more importantly, where they fit into them.

For example, when I’m working with a new client who is unfamiliar with e-learning development, I use simple analogies to help them understand each step. I explain how a storyboard is like a blueprint for a house, how a protype is like a 3D mockup, and how development is like the construction process. Don’t shield them from the process. Instead, bring them along for the ride. This will help build trust and get you speaking the same language.

Tip #2: Help Them Understand Good Learning Design

SMEs want everyone (especially their learners) to be as knowledgeable about their subject as they are. However, learning professionals know that’s unreasonable, unrealistic, and more often than not, unnecessary. Our job is to help our SMEs understand good learning design.

Whether you’re designing an e-learning course, an instructor-led workshop, or a simple job aid, it’s important that you educate your stakeholders and SMEs about what’s going to make for the most effective learning experience. That means emphasizing the importance of designing learning that improves performance rather than just increasing knowledge. And the truth is, there’s no better way to convince them of this than to tie your learning and performance goals to their business goals.

Tip #3: Enable Them to Make the Big Decisions

Your stakeholders and SMEs will always ask for the moon, and they’ll want you to have delivered it last week. Many of us will then be challenged to figure out the nicest, least-offensive way to say the dreaded “no.” And unfortunately, instead we often begrudgingly say “yes” and take on the responsibility and burden of their unreasonable ask.


So, how can you stop making their problems your problems, and in turn, encourage them to make the big decisions? The secret is to let them know the cost of entry for what they’re asking for, and rather than saying “no,” you say “yes, and.” Let me show you how.

Example One:

  • When they ask: “Can you build that e-learning course in a week?”

  • You say: “Sure, I can build it in a week, and it’ll mean deprioritizing your other projects. What are your thoughts?”

Example Two:

  • When they ask: “Can we include live-action video?”

  • You say: “Of course we can incorporate live-action video, and it’ll require us to hire a film crew. What’s your budget for that?”

Example Three:

  • When they ask: “Can you build both courses at the same time?”

  • You say: “Yes, we can build both courses at the same time, and it’ll mean the quality won’t be as good. Are you OK with that?”

Now, does this method work every time? Of course not! However, you might discover your stakeholders and SMEs are more willing to negotiate that you might have thought.


Those are my three tips for working with your stakeholders and SMEs. Although it’s not always easy, remember what I said at the top of the video: You and your stakeholders need each other. They have the information you need to solve their problems.

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