Getting the Most Value from Your Subject Matter Experts without Burnout

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It’s great to have subject matter experts on your team. In addition to your own team benefiting from their expertise, they may end up being highly sought by other teams too, which can raise your team’s value throughout the organization. But when subject expertise isn’t the person’s main job responsibility, how can you get the most value from them without overextending them or shortchanging their other work?

1. Make providing expertise an explicit part of their job. Otherwise, people tend to get stuck providing expertise on top of an already full-time slate of other duties. But if you make it a clear part of their role, it can be easier to carve out protected time for that work. For example, if you acknowledge that 15% of the person’s time will be spent providing feedback to the technical writing team even though they’re a product engineer, it’s going to help reinforce that they’ve only got 85% of their time remaining for their “core” work – and prevent a situation where they get stuck with full-time work plus another 15%.

2. Be clear about the trade-offs. Jane may provide huge value to the company by spending that 15% of her time helping another team, but if it leaves your team short-handed on its own important work, you need to confront that tension head-on. Does the other team actually need to hire their own staff member to handle what Jane is helping them with? Do you need to add staff to your own team? Is it okay that your team will get slightly less done because Jane is providing that help? There are a variety of possible answers here; the key is for you to get really clear on what trade-offs are reasonable to make and whether there are better alternatives.

3. Be really clear with the staff member about priorities. It might be just fine for Jane to lend her expertise to other teams much of the time, but you’ll want to make sure she’s aligned with you about what the limits of that are. Are there projects that always need to come first? Are there pieces of your project cycles where you need her to be unavailable to other teams so that she can focus on her work for you? It’s crucial to make sure that you and the person are very much on the same page, so that the time she’s allocating to providing expertise versus other work doesn’t conflict with what your team needs.

Relatedly, make sure that the person doesn’t feel overextended or pulled in too many different directions. One way to do that is to explicitly authorize the person to push back when subject expertise requests are threatening their other work or their ability to work a reasonable schedule. If the person knows you want them to raise it when that’s happening, you’re more likely to hear about it early, rather than only once the problem is entrenched and the person is approaching burn-out.

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