The Subject Matter Expert (A Misunderstood Product Owner Stance)

Robbin Schuurman
Nov 20, 2019 · 7 min read
The Subject Matter Expert Product Owner

What is a Subject Matter Expert?

The Subject Matter Expert or SME is the expert in telling you how stuff works. Product Owners that favor this stance are a blessing and a curse. When you bring relevant domain knowledge to the Scrum Team, they can make more informed decisions and create a better plan to achieve (Sprint) Goals. It can also lead to a single point of knowledge, and rather than taking the stance of the Story Writer and forgoing discussion, this stance manifests itself as micro-management and spoon feeding the development team. In many organizations, it seems to be expected that the Product Owner is also the Subject Matter Expert. The person with the most knowledge about the business processes and the nitty gritty details. Although there’s nothing wrong with understanding the business processes really well as a Product Owner, you don’t have to be the expert!

A subject-matter expert (SME) or domain expert is a person who is an authority in a particular area or topic. The term domain expert is frequently used in expert systems software development, and there the term always refers to the domain other than the software domain. A domain expert is a person with special knowledge or skills in a particular area of endeavour (e.g. an accountant is an expert in the domain of accountancy). The development of accounting software requires knowledge in two different domains: accounting and software. Some of the development workers may be experts in one domain and not the other.
Wikipedia, Oktober 2019 —

The Subject Matter Expert is also referred to as the senior user, key user, proces manager, domain expert or business expert.

The Product Owner as a SME

With the many Product Owners and Product Managers we have trained and coached in their daily practice, we’ve observed the following patterns in Product Owners that we would classify as SMEs:

The results/effects of acting like a SME

Obviously, not all (Product Owner) SMEs are the same, and not all the results/effects may be visible in your context. That being said though, what we typically observe when Product Owners act like SMEs is:

What you can do to move away from this stance

Many people love to be an expert in something. From various different researches, such as done by Dan Pink, they learned that Mastery is actually a big motivator for people: People like to become very good at something. So, that leaves us with the challenging question: What can you do to move away from the misunderstood Subject Matter Expert stance? Well, there are a couple of options, but none of them will be a quick fix though…

Want to learn more?

This is a blog from the Stances of the Product Owner series, in which Professional Scrum Product Owner Trainers and Consultants Chris Lukassen and Robbin Schuurman explore preferred and misunderstood stances (attitudes) of Product Owners and (Agile) Product Managers. Read more about the Stances of the Product Owner on this page.

Go experience the Stances of the Product Owner!

If you’re a Product Owner, Product Manager, Scrum Master or Agile Coach with about a year (or more) of experience under your belt, go and explore the Stances of the Product Owner in the Professional Scrum Product Owner-Advanced class. Find a trainer to your liking or in your area, and deepen and expand your Product Management knowledge and skills. And let us know what you think about the training! What did you like? What can be improved? Let’s collaborate to take the profession of Product Ownership to the next level.

If you’d like to experience the all-new Professional Scrum Product Owner-Advanced class, go to Scrum.org to find a class in your area. If you’d like to participate in one of our classes, check out our Xebia Academy page for more information or inquire for an in-house class via training@xebia.com.

Want to join our Scrum.org Product Owner-Advanced Training? Click the banner to find a course.

The Value Maximizers

In 2019, Robbin Schuurman and Chris Lukassen have joined their knowledge, experience and forces into a new brand: The Value Maximizers. Our mission: Growing Product Leaders. On this blog, we’ll be launching a lot of new content around Product Leadership / Ownership / Management.

Robbin Schuurman

Written by

Product Leader, Professional Scrum Trainer, passionate golfer and author of the book, 50 Shades of No: Effective Stakeholder Management for the Product Owner.

The Value Maximizers

In 2019, Robbin Schuurman and Chris Lukassen have joined their knowledge, experience and forces into a new brand: The Value Maximizers. Our mission: Growing Product Leaders. On this blog, we’ll be launching a lot of new content around Product Leadership / Ownership / Management.

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