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Subject matter experts: can their bias ruin a project?

13 December 2016

The use of subject matter experts can be astronomically beneficial for a project. Their dedicated knowledge of the field ensures they can bring insightful and research-based ideas to the table, which can launch your project to the next level.

With all of the positives associated with utilising subject matter experts, there is—unfortunately—at least one glaring red flag that can have a negative impact. Simply put, it is biased.

It is likely that someone who is an expert in a particular subject matter has spent years dealing in that particular field. As human nature goes, it is also probable that they have formed their own opinions surrounding the facts. These opinions can make things cloudy when it comes to providing an objective view of the project.

Making sure expert bias doesn’t undermine your project

There are key steps a project manager can action to ensure that this potential bias from subject matter experts doesn’t negatively affect the outcome of the tasks ahead.

Be aware

The first step has been half accomplished by reading this article; that is, having an awareness of expert bias and that it can exist. Without acknowledging the problem, it’s almost impossible to recognise and certainly difficult to resolve.

With the knowledge that some of the input provided by your expert (or team of experts) may be shrouded with an unhelpful opinion, you will be more alert to extracting only the useful facts that their invaluable research and information provides.

It’s never going to be as clear-cut as an expert saying ‘these are the facts, and these are my opinions’, but you can certainly look at the data presented and identify what is proven versus what may be more empirically derived.

Separate the ‘researchers’ and the ‘implementers’

There are often costs involved when including subject matter experts within a project and as such, it can be tempting to have them heavily involved, so you gain the most benefit. However, it’s important to at least limit their involvement within the implementation stage of a project.

That’s because if they have applied bias to their findings, subconsciously or not, this will largely go unchecked should they be allowed to go straight from the researching phase to the outworking of the project.

The smartest direction to take here is to have a different team working on the implementation with oversight from the subject matter expert(s), if deemed necessary. If this isn’t plausible, a secondary option is important to ensure their research is proofed prior to executing the project, as well as adding team members to assist with implementation, who are less likely to have formed biased opinions.

With a certain level of precaution and mild scepticism, using subject matter experts on a project can be an incredibly fruitful and helpful endeavour. Keeping the above steps in mind, you can ensure your project is successful with the help of their expertise, minus the potential for biased opinions affecting the outcome.

A Master of Project Management can go a long way in building your skillset to tackle these project issues. Call one of our Student Enrolment Advisors on 1300 589 882 to learn more about our postgraduate project management course.