The customer or subject matter expert (SME) is always right

Mr potato head


The SME can either be the cause of success or failure for a business analyst so they must be handled very carefully.

In this article, I’ll introduce a certain type of SME who is passionate and loves to dive into the detail.

I’ll also explain how this was beneficial but needed to be managed on a recent project engagement.

I would also be very interested in your opinion as this is just my point of view.

In this workshop, I was brand new on the project and it was my first introduction to the business sponsor and various other individuals so I was planning on sitting back and watching to understand the project, the personalities and any politics.

Diving into the detail

One of the the attendees who I understood to be an SME was very passionate about his subject and keen to explore problems and dive into the detail.  This often left me floundering (due to lack of domain knowledge) and wandering whether this was the right forum to be working at this level of detail. This was confounded by him meeting his counterpart on the IT team who was a domain expert and immediately understood his concerns and was able to explore and make proposals very quickly. Some of the proposals sounded a lot like solutions so I was concerned to understand the real drivers.

There is nothing wrong with any of this as long as it is relatively contained and/or contributes to the objectives of the workshop.

There were three reasons why I felt this may have been acceptable:

i) this project represented one business unit’s attempt to piggy back off an existing project that was already far advanced in requirements gathering
The new business unit represented the continental European part of the company whereas the main project was supporting the UK intiative.

ii) this was a regulatory change and time was extremely tight (less than one year to delivery)

iii) the proposed solution was utilising a package that was purported to be universally suitable for use within Europe for this particular area of functionality

There was another reason – don’t upset your SME’s on first meeting – establish a rapport first, then upset them 😉


Way forward

The best way to proceed (imo) is three pronged:

Learn everything

Immerse myself in the business domain to get up to speed with the business jargon, practises and the requirements for the existing problem. This runs in parallel to the other activities. This is necessary to give myself half a chance of keeping up and avoiding slowing things down purely for my benefit.

Rapidly home in on the ‘obvious’ areas of change or new work against the existing requirement set

Use the subject matter experts to identify the ‘obvious’ areas of change or new work against the existing requirement set in an initial workshop

Run workshops that walk through the existing proposal from end to end, identify areas of concern, explore at length and generate initial requirements

 Perform due diligence against the requirements 

Review requirements arising from previous workshop and address quality issues (see Requirements engineering and quality). In particular, where requirements are really solutions then drive out the rationale or the underlying requirement

Walk through a wider variety of scenarios with all stakeholders to determine any additional requirements


Communicate then act

Before I proceed with this plan, I must  have some face to face time with the SME’s to explain my point of view and the risks that are being addressed. They need to understand and be behind the approach.



In this article I explained how some SME’s have passion for their subject but may dive into detail prematurely.

I also explained how, when there are time pressures, this can be advantageous and, indeed, can be exploited for project success.

I described how you still need to exercise due diligence regarding the requirements.

Finally, I explained how you need to communicate your approach and keep the SME’s on side to be successful.


I’d be very interested in any opinions, expecially any challenges – have I avoided my responsibilities as a business analyst or is this the right solution for a particular problem?

About Alex Papworth

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