When you’re not the subject matter expert

June 5, 2016 3coze

I’ve watched you do it. While you’re presenting your content at the meeting, you’re interested and engaged and you add so much value. I love your passion and your feisty defense of your plan. But then someone else takes the floor and in the blink of an eye you’re a different person. The presentation clearly doesn’t interest you. I know because you stop contributing, cease asking questions, drop eye contact. I can tell by your frequent glances and hopeful taps of your phone screen that you’re desperately hoping for a new email to amuse (or at least distract) you.

Some days, my thoughts go to how we got to this terrible spot where meetings have ceased to be creative and dynamic forums for team members to add value for one another. How have we set a new norm to take orderly turns presenting our ideas and cycling through eight one-on-one conversations with the boss? Here’s all I can come up with:

  • We’re overwhelmed. With the torrent of information flowing, it’s an impossible task to stay abreast of the critical information in your own role, let alone keep up with what’s going on in someone else’s. You don’t have the context, so you’re not interested or can’t follow.
  • We’re obsessed with subject matter experts. It’s the era of big data and analytics and blogs for people interested in niche specialities. We hire strategy firms hoping they know more about our jobs than we do. You would be forgiven for thinking that your lack of deep expertise makes your contribution irrelevant.
  • We’re rushed. We pack too much into the agenda of meetings so you adding your two cents—or worse, adding a really thought provoking question that stops the presenter in her tracks—is just not helpful, thanks very much.

Complaining about the sorry state isn’t going to get us anywhere. Most days, I stop pondering the causes of our “meetings as a spectator sport” problem and instead think of ways to fix it.

The solution is for you to swim against the current of too much information, of rubber-stamping the expert, of speeding through one decision just to do the same disservice to the next. You can refuse to be on the sidelines in your own team meeting.

  • Listen for assumptions. The less you know about a plan, the easier it is to hear the leaps in logic contained within it. As you hear an assumption, call it out. Not with judgment, just as a service to the team. “If I’m following correctly, this plan is based on the assumption that March will be our busiest month.”
  • Play a role. If you can’t play the subject matter expert role, you can play another one. As a proposed plan is discussed, listen through the ears of the customer, or a distributor, or an employee. What do you like? What worries you? What questions would you have? Throw your observations into the discussion, “I’m wondering how that would land with our distributors. I’m thinking primarily of Smith Brothers, who might not get the volume they’re looking for.”
  • Stress test the plan. As the ideas are presented, think about how effective you think they’ll be. Under what conditions will the plan work? What would derail it? Raise any scenarios that you believe the plan doesn’t address. “I’m following how this would work in our Meat and Dairy lines and anything else in the fresh section. How does this address the issues in our frozen line-up?”
  • Think implementation. If the details of the plan sound good to you, switch your focus to implementation issues. What steps need to happen and in which order? Where do you anticipate resistance? How could the plan be communicated to ensure everyone is mobilized accordingly?

There are so many ways you can add value in your meeting. Some of them are more likely when you don’t have the subject matter expertise than when you do. Stop checking out. Stay engaged and add value for your teammates. It will make the meeting so much better—and it will feel so much faster too.

Further Reading

A recipe for using experts

Dealing with a co-worker who doesn’t pull their weight

How to get a juicy conversation

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