How to Effectively Interview a Subject Matter Expert
Read Time: 5 Minutes
Scottish historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle once said, “Nothing is more terrible than activity without insight.” When you’re facing a challenging decision, the insights gained by interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs) can help guide you to the best decision before taking action. To make the most of those interviews, it’s best to follow these interviewing best practices so you can maximize the value of your time and effort.
Planning the interview is critical. In fact, it will determine the success of the interview itself and the insights you glean. Planning involves two very important documents. The first is the interview plan, which focuses on selecting the right experts you wish to speak with. The second is the interview guide, which details the very specific questions you intend to discuss with the expert or experts you select.
The Interview Plan
Start with the end in mind and define your goals for doing the research. It is important to know what decision or action you intend to take as a result of your research. From here, you can work backward to determine the intelligence and analysis required to make a well-formed decision. And finally, work backward to outline what raw data and insights are needed to develop that intelligence.
You can start your planning with research using secondary sources. This is the data in the public domain, easily accessible through database searches, published books and reports, internet searches, and trade publications. Up-front secondary research will quickly identify those topics that can be answered using only primary sources, techniques like focus groups, surveys, and, of course, SME interviews that can provide the insight that comes only from first-hand experience.
The Interview Plan in Action
Let’s bring this funneling process to life with a fictional example. Imagine that a chemical company wants to understand whether it should enter the market for lubricants in the commercial aircraft engine components business. Before acting, the firm wants to reinforce its decision with intelligence about the opportunity size, the cost and ease of market entry, and the sustainability of profits should it go into that business.
To make a well-informed decision, our imaginary chemical company decides to develop intelligence from data and insights that include primary and secondary sources to answer a set of specific questions. How big is the market? How often are lubricants changed? How much lubricant is used per engine? What lubricants are currently used? Why? How does the value chain work? What are the costs at each step? Is the usage rate likely to change? Are lubricant needs changing? Who are the distinctive suppliers in this area and what differentiates them?
Since much of this data and insight can be developed only with primary sources, our chemical company’s next step is developing an interview plan of the ideal experts who can answer these questions. A first start is to develop keywords that describe unique and specific background characteristics of those experts who have deep industry experience.
In this case, the ideal experts might be OEM project managers, such as those at Pratt & Whitney who specify lubricants and maintenance schedules; airline maintenance managers at carriers such as Delta or America; lubricant formulators at a company such as ExxonMobil Aviation; and managers at base oil suppliers, such as Neste. An expert network like GLG can use these keywords to search and vet the appropriate experts. The final interview plan will not only include the right experts but also sequence the interviews in a logical order that builds your knowledge step by step.
Creating an Interview Guide
As you plan, you should also develop a written interview guide that outlines the questions you intend to ask the SME. Do not think of writing an interview guide as a creative assignment — this can be frustrating and lead to procrastination. Think of it as a mechanical exercise that leads to questions that flow naturally from the intelligence and insight you need to address the decisions you intend to make.
The above example is an “intelligence framework.” It can help you distill the types of intelligence you need to take action into discrete interview questions.
By viewing your project at a macro level and breaking down what you need into the “intelligence themes” seen on the left-hand side, you can translate those into the specific questions in the right-hand column. Many methodologies are available for distilling these questions, including classics such as Porter’s “five forces” analysis and strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT).
As you finalize the guide, strike any questions already answered through secondary research and make sure the questions that remain are open-ended so that they won’t be answered by a simple yes or no. It is imperative to prompt as much insight and discussion as possible.
Remain neutral and unbiased when you frame the questions. The goal of the interview process is to get objective input from an expert — not to persuade them that the hypothesis or business idea you have in mind is the correct one and worth pursuing.
It is important that the questions you ask don’t violate third-party secrecy agreements and securities regulations. It is perfectly acceptable to ask an expert about any subject matter, but don’t inadvertently move into an area where the expert is legally bound not to divulge information.
You can discuss market conditions with an employee of a large operating company, but you cannot discuss the current performance of his or her business unit. That information is protected by security regulations and usually an employment contract. As a guide, ask about general trends in the industry, your expert’s views on best practices, and what’s typical in the industry — not specific questions about how the expert’s company handles things.
With thoughtful up-front planning that includes a well-crafted interview plan and interview guide, in-depth interviews with subject matter experts will provide the insight you need to make smart decisions and move your business forward.
About the Author
Michael Brown is President of StrategyMark, a Yorklyn, Delaware-based firm providing buy-side analysis and consulting services to the chemical industry. He also serves as an advisor to the board of Inhance Technologies. Earlier, Mr. Brown was a managing partner with TZ Chemicals International Pty. Ltd., the global director of coatings at Quaker Chemical Corp., and a vice president of ChemQuest Group.
Mr. Brown also has extensive expertise advising clients on how they can best engage GLG Network Members. He has been in the GLG network since 2004 and has conducted more than 3,000 consultations with GLG clients, giving him a unique perspective on best practices for getting the most value out of GLG products.