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May 18, 2009

The SME Influence Crutch

For various reasons I've recently been in three different classes dealing with "Influence" in different forms. Influence is a key skill that Microsoft is trying to develop in its employees, in particular that variety known as Influence Without Authority, which has become such a catchphrase that it deserves its own acronym: IWOA.

(The extra "O" in IWOA is to distinguish it from its cousin Influence With Authority, or IWA. It turns out that IWA has more in common with IWOA than you might think. IWOA is about motivating people to do things even though they could be doing something else. If you manage somebody you can IWA by just telling them to do something, but if you overuse that technique they will quickly become disgruntled and unmotivated. So, IWOA is very useful for managers also.)

Anyway, I was in one of these classes and the instructor asked people to list skills that were needed for IWOA. This is the typical list (find out what they like, explain the benefits if they do something, mitigate any concerns they have about their ability to do the work, etc--there are hundreds of books on this topic). But then somebody said that a way to influence people was to become a Subject-Matter Expert (that phrase, and its acronym SME, are in common use at Microsoft). That is, you influence somebody by knowing so much about the subject that you impress them with your awesomeness and they want to follow you.

Now, it's not that being a SME is a bad thing; most people at Microsoft are experts at something. And I predict that what I write next is going to annoy a certain someone with the initials MB (or MC), who will think I am claiming that "A good manager can manage anything" and all that. Nonetheless, the problem with using SMEness for IWOA, besides the fact that it is hard to type that with a straight face, is that becoming a SME takes too long. Sure you can learn just a bit about the area so you don't sound like an idiot, but you likely already have that if you are working with somebody. If you *are* an expert in the area you want to influence somebody, then great; but if you're not, then you very likely don't have time to become an expert in time to move the IWOAmeter by any measurable amount. And if you need to influence different people, you almost certainly can't become an expert in everything they are. In Microsoft parlance, SME IWOA doesn't "scale".

So I thought it was a bit lame when the instructor allowed the SME comment to be added unchallenged to our list of IWOA behaviors. I think influence through SMEness appeals to the dream of a Microsoft as a geekocracy, and it also has the advantage that you can do it without having to, you know, actually talk to anybody (the IWOA fantasy is that people will be so awed by your brilliance that they will bow down before you are obey your wishes before you even state them out loud). Unfortunately this just isn't the way the world works. There are a variety of techniques you can use when called upon to IWOA on short notice, but subject-matter expertise is not one of them.

Posted by AdamBa at May 18, 2009 09:16 PM


Robert Cialdini's Psychology of Persuasion is a truly excellent book on influence (Cialdini is a psychology professor at Arizona State University). It's probably the best non-fiction book I've ever read (although Peter van der Linden's Deep C Secrets is a close second) and has paid itself back many orders of magnitude in terms of my subsequent immunity to slick sales techniques :-).

Cialdini breaks down influence into 6 specific categories:-

Consistency: people have strong tendencies to be consistent to their previous public actions or statements. If you can get somebody to freely commit, verbally or in writing, to an idea or course of action you can often get them to follow through on that commitment even if the conditions become less favorable.

Reciprocation: People feel obligated to return favors, even if returning the favor requires more effort/money than the original deed.

Exclusivity: People are drawn to things that appear to be scarce. For example the classic electronics sales technique of telling a customer that there is only 1 item left in the store of particular TV/phone/laptop.

Social Proof: People are more likely to be persuaded into doing something if they think a lot of other people are doing the same thing.

Authority: People will often do what they are asked when the person doing the asking is perceived as an authority that particular area (although often only the illusion of authority is required, such as a white coat in a medical establishment). The SMEs that you talk about would fall into this category.

Liking: People are more likely do something when asked by somebody they like or who has a common background or interests. For instance a typical car sales technique is for the sales person to claim to have a relative from the area of the country that you grew up in.

If you've ever had the feeling that you've been taken in by a slick sales technique the chances are it falls into one of these categories.

Posted by: Andrew at May 19, 2009 10:03 AM

It's true that any technique you use to influence people could be used against you...I suppose it's useful to learn the skill just to defend against it.

The book "Influencer" is another good one, it also divides things into 6 approaches, although not quite the same ones.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at May 20, 2009 09:29 PM