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?