Project Management

Best Practices for Managing Project Escalations

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By Marian Haus, PMP

Throughout any given initiative, project managers must deal with issues that are sure to arise. Some are solvable within the project organization, with or without the project manager’s influence. Others however — especially those that could affect the outcome of a project — go beyond a project manager’s range of influence and authority.

Such major issues and risks can lead to escalations, which require special handling and management.

Various project management guidelines and specialized literature insufficiently cover the escalation management domain.

Escalation means trouble — so it’s a word very few people want to hear about. It also means that a higher authority will need to be called up to take action before it is too late.

When necessary, and if done in a timely and appropriate manner, escalation management can help a project manager solve issues outside of their authority or influence.

Here are some tips and tricks for project managers to better deal with escalations.

1. Be Prepared

From the project outset, define a clear escalation path and mechanism. For instance, establish an escalation committee (e.g., your sponsors or upper management board) and agree on escalating major issues when necessary and bypassing certain hierarchy levels in order to escalate faster.

Don’t overdo it! You should not escalate every encountered issue—only escalate major issues that have considerable impacts.

2. Assess and Qualify the Risk

Is it serious enough to escalate? Is there anything else you can do to avoid an escalation? Is it the right time to escalate?

Certainly, in order to be effective, the escalation should be raised in a timely manner. Therefore, neither should you exaggerate with going through an elaborated risk assessment, nor should you wait too long until raising the escalation (e.g., do not wait until the next reporting period is due).

3. Communicate the Escalation

After you’ve done everything you could have to prevent the escalation (you raised awareness, you communicated, you have pushed and pulled), it is time to escalate!

To escalate effectively and efficiently, first keep a calm and clear head. Then, follow these tips:

  • Escalate via the channel that is most appropriate for your project context. Ideally, the escalation should be communicated in a face-to-face meeting or call. Emails can be the most ineffective escalation tools, because they can delay the resolution if the emails are not handled in a timely manner. Emails also can lead to misunderstandings if the context is not well understood. Additionally, they can lead to a deadlock if sent to multiple and unnecessary individuals or when it is unclear who the targeted person is for taking action. In short: Avoid escalations via email.
  • Avoid getting personal and refrain from finger pointing. Focus on the issue at hand. This should be communicated and addressed objectively.
  • Explain the major issue and its implications. Keep it short and simple, so that everyone requested to help you can understand.
  • Explain what you did to avoid the issue and escalation. Again, keep it short. Otherwise, you will end up in endless apologies.
  • If possible, make a proposal with two or three resolution options. Explain their potential effect on the issue at hand and ideally make a recommendation on which options to go for.

4. Follow Up

Generally, every escalation requires some resolution time for when the project manager and the project team will implement the decisions agreed upon by the escalation board.

You will need to regularly inform your escalation committee with status and progress updates until the risk and problem are completely resolved. And, after getting back on track, you should conduct a lessons-learned exercise with your project team to learn and grow from the encountered crisis situation.

Would you agree? How are you managing escalations in your projects?


Posted by Marian Haus on: October 06, 2017 12:45 PM | Permalink

Comments (21)

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I use the phone call first as channel to communicate and escalating issue; but, I like to also write an e-mail as written reference of the situation and action taken.
It happened that a resolution was necessary and I have not received direction (after phone calls and e-mails); later on I was questioned on my decision based on my level of responsibility; I pointed out the e-mail and references to phone call and the lack of respond. Issue closed on my end.

I usually use escalation when different stakeholders cannot agree to a course of action. At that point, I inform both parties that I will be escalating the issue to their appropriate managers. I then make sure that both managers are properly briefed about the issue. Finally, I have the two managers meet to decide on a resolution or, at least, a course of action.

this is an interesting article , escalation is one of the areas most of the project managers i know avoid. deciding the timing of escalation and to be prepared are the crucial part over here. the challenge here is that no one will tell you when to escalate and what you should do to be prepared , according to me , it comes by experience.

Basically it's used as a last resort. However, the blow is softened if the process of escalation is clearly stated at the beginning of the project, usually in the communications and/or stakeholder management plan. That way there should be no surprises.

Excellent, thanks for sharing

I completely agree that - the escalation should be communicated in a face-to-face meeting or call, this reduces misunderstanding and set context for every stakeholder.
Also, I think it is very important to create an action plan to resolve the escalation and should be shared with customer promptly to calm the customer.
Thank you for the tips in the article!

interesting points, excalation can make or break your project success

I have come across many instances were issues are so complicated that these needs to be escalated to immediate superior, through voice, email and pointing out in meetings. When Site Issues have to be escalated to H.O/PMO it is always better if there is an existing procedure for the purpose. In all other cases the experience of the person escalating and the timing will depend on how the issue will be resolved. I have come across these kind of situations in Construction industry often.

Stéphane & Sante Vergini - I agree with both of you. Communication and Stakeholder management plan generally includes escalation process in various scenario, and ultimately responsibility of its solution lies with immediate reporting stakeholders of the confronted parties which can be intra department, inter department (internal customers) or as mentioned by Sonali can be external customer.

"Escalate via the channel that is most appropriate for your project context". Actually, we need to follow the most appropriate channel for doing this.
Good article. Thank you!

I agree that. For escalate, communicated in face-to-face meeting is the best. I like to send e-mail after we discuss in meeting too for someone who cannot join and he/she can understand situation.

A step-by-step point on your aggressive project response was very helpful.
Especially, '2. Assess and Qualify the Risk' & '3. Communicate the Escalation'
Great & Thanks. Marian Haus

Marian has some extremely valuable points. I have represented both Contractor and Owner positions during the Change Order process. Some very Public Owners are graded on how many Changes they can avoid, so the issue of Change Orders becomes personal and career threatening very fast in some environments.
To mitigate this issue, I am going to insist on the formation of a CCB upfront (as suggested by PMI) when I take over my next Major Project. I want Stakeholders to be committed to the process of discussing legitimate Change requests in a Preset Forum, prior to escalating into an adversarial dispute.
Too many of these Requests are perceived as personal criticisms..........

Comments on Step 3:

1. Escalate with face-to-face meeting/call and not email, but after the escalation send a detailed mail to all with minutes of the meeting and actions expected from all involved. It will ensure that all participants are on the same page, and expected actions will follow.
2. While explaining what you did to resolve the issue, inform that it failed to resolve the issue since you did not have the right authority that could have made you succeed. Hence, the higher authority to whom you are escalating will be clear on how he/she has to resolve the issue differently using the powers he/she possesses that you lacked.

Follow-up is hugely important. I think so often in work, we tend to complete the effort and move on to the next thing. Learning and teaching from experiences is what makes the group as a whole better. Too often, the tendency is to forget this important piece of project closure.

Great article, thanks for sharing!

Great article!

Great article ! I actually used some of the tips from this article ! Thank you !

Thank you for sharing this great article. I agree with the above comments.We cannot substitute a face to face meeting with an email when communicating critical information. Communicating in a timely manner is crucial.

Great Article.

I do agree on escalation.

Escalation does not means finger pointing/complaints etc.... Escalation is tool used to get the work done in priority to avoid delays/risks/failures. This I keep everything clear and get things sorted out easily.

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