3 Tricks for Working with SMEs on Branching Scenarios

Use these three tricks for working with SMEs to make creating branching scenarios easier.

If you’ve ever worked with a SME on scenario-based learning, you know it can sometimes be challenging. SMEs who are accustomed to working on traditional elearning may be uncomfortable or unsure how to help you write scenarios. Sometimes, you run into obstacles and need some ideas for getting “unstuck.” I have used these three tricks for working with SMEs on branching scenarios.

Working with SMEs on Branching Scenarios

Ask for Their Stories

SMEs frequently have a collection of good stories about their topic. The trick is figuring out how to get those stories out of their heads and into a format you can use in a course.

Try these questions to gather inspiration for stories:

  • Can you give me an example of how someone used this technique successfully? What were they able to accomplish by doing it right?
  • What are the common mistakes people make? When they make that error, what happens?

You may have to keep probing for more details with follow up questions like, “Tell me more about…” or “What happened next?”

The questions above give both positive and negative examples, plus the consequences for actions. A success story can become the outline for the correct path in your branching scenario. Mistakes help you identify the decision points in your scenario and the consequences following those choices.

Use my extensive list of questions for SMEs to gather stories (or at least the details for stories).

Start Writing Even If It’s Wrong

Sometimes it’s hard to get anything from a SME. We’ve all worked with SMEs who were too busy to get on the phone or sit down for a meeting, or who replied to all of our questions with one- or two-word answers. I worked with one SME whose thought processes are so linear that she literally couldn’t read a flow chart unless someone physically sat next to her and pointed at each box while explaining it.

For whatever reason, if you’re having trouble drawing information out from a SME, start writing something yourself. Do your research–review existing training materials, online articles, books, blogs, etc. Make your best guess and start writing a scenario as best you can.

The trick is, it doesn’t matter if it’s wrong. At this stage, you’re just trying to get something other than a blank page. Ask the SME to review it and point out all your errors. Even a recalcitrant SME will have a hard time not correcting your mistakes–and now you suddenly have more realistic mistakes or consequences.

Prototype Early

SMEs frequently have a hard time envisioning how a storyboard will translate into a final product. Creating a prototype early helps them see how everything will work and how learners will progress through the scenario.

No matter how hard you work on the storyboard, even with multiple rounds of revision and a final approval, expect at least some small changes once the scenario is built and functioning. Build a few iterations into your project plan. An early prototype helps catch major problems before you build the entire scenario. If your SME is stuck, a prototype of part of the scenario might help them see how to fill in the gaps for the rest of the scenario.

Your Tricks?

Do you have a great trick for working with SMEs on branching scenarios? Tell me about it in the comments!

Read More

Read all my posts about Storytelling and Scenario-Based Learning.

Originally published 12/6/2016. Updated 10/14/2021.

8 thoughts on “3 Tricks for Working with SMEs on Branching Scenarios

  1. Christy, Great Post! And much needed for this sticky problem. When we built scenarios for the first computer-based branching simulations back in the day we would take our SME’s away on “retreats” because we found that it took time to get them to change the way they thought about their expertise. Our experts — in the leadership development area — tended to think in terms of the principles they wanted their learners to learn. Principles are great, but they are not sufficient when you’re using scenarios. Scenarios require Situation-Action contingencies, and our SME’s were often not prepared to think in these S-A links. We had to, in a sense, reeducate them, which was not easy… They often grumbled, which is why the process took time and why we had to take them away from distractions to enable this transformation. Eventually, they loved the result and they found the process enlightening.
    So let me provide an example. Our SME’s would tell us: “A leader should seek input from his/her direct reports when making decisions.” A great principle. Unfortunately, it is NOT enough to know the principle. What about if it’s an ethical issue? What about if the the manager’s boss gives them strict ground rules? In these cases, the principle will fail. In a situation where there’s an ethical issue, the boss should — at least most of the time — not open it up to discussion. The boss should do what is ethical right. Similarly, if you’re a manager and your boss says to paint the wall red, it wouldn’t make sense to ask your team what color to paint the wall. Again, the principle fails. SO, the bottom line is that when working with SME’s on scenarios, it’s critical to work out the boundary conditions of the recommendations they make.
    One final point. Principles are boring! They’re motherhood and apple pie. Using them in scenarios is ONLY interesting if you test the boundaries of when they should be used and when they shouldn’t.

    1. Great example! I love the idea of doing retreats, although all of my clients are virtual. It would be hard to do that in a virtual environment. Blocking off some significant time and planning to reeducate SMEs is important though, even if all the meetings are virtual.
      Testing the boundaries of using principles is a great idea for asking SMEs for deeper responses. Ask what the exceptions are and when they shouldn’t follow those rules. Ask about the messy situations and the edge cases, the things that don’t cleanly fit into a single “box” for learning.
      Great suggestions!

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