Project Management

The Politics of Escalation

From the An Influential Project Manager Blog
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The Politics of Escalation

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In all big relationships, be they supplier, outsourcing or strategic alliances, escalation processes are inevitable and necessary. They are formal procedures to resolve intractable problems between the parties. While accepting that these processes need to be used, and should be used, I do feel that they are often overused, and over-relied upon to solve problems.

Why? Well, to provoke a little debate:

  1. Escalation presents an easy excuse at lower levels to pass responsibility up the chain of command.
  2. The pervasive myth that senior people are better placed to solve these problems.
  3. Failure to build trust and credibility at the appropriate levels.
  4. Absence of a positive, proactive, and collaborative problem-solving mentality.
  5. "It's the way we do things round here."
  6. It makes senior people feel important and useful.

There are many reasons why escalation should be minimised to the levels necessary for acceptable governance and compliance. For instance:

  • Introducing more people to the process, especially those in powerful positions, magnifies the complexity rapidly. Instead of the two people closest to the problem working on the solution, immediately, many other agendas come crashing into it (both professional, personal, legitimate and frankly, suspect).
  • Cybernetics (a rarely mentioned methodology within the field of systems thinking), teaches that the best place to respond to complexity in the organisation’s environment is in the boundary-spanning roles. The intelligence system (top bosses) should be kept informed but are unlikely to be able to contribute much to the immediate problem.
  • As the level of power flying in to solve the problem rises, the emotions rise too, especially fear of negative repercussions.
  • Senior management has other things to do.

I'm sure you can think of more.

So what?

If you're considering escalation, challenge yourself hard:

  • Is this the best way to achieve the outcome you want?
  • What damage will it do to your opposite number?
  • How can you build your relationship with your opposite number so you can work more collaboratively?
  • How is escalation going to change the problem and make it harder to resolve?
  • Is your decision to escalate correct rather than personally convenient?
  • Have you failed by resorting to escalation?

If you're on the receiving end of escalations:

  • Should you really get involved? If so, in what way?
  • What are you doing to inadvertently encourage escalations?
  • How are your actions/reactions today perpetuating these problems?
  • Step back, what's the strategic solution to escalations?
  • How can you train, help and support your team to resolve problems?
  • How much are these escalations costing you in time?
  • What is the opportunity cost to you and your business?
  • Is your love of solving problems getting in the way of your strategic leadership?

Yes, I am being deliberately provocative. My rationale is that there are always many ways to look at anything that is happening. When you're deep in the detail, it is really hard to see these alternatives unless someone like me grabs your attention and says, “Hey, what if this is true?”

I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts on this subject. The problems escalations are causing; the costs; the approaches you are taking? Indeed, what is the best practice out there for ensuring escalation is appropriate and positive?


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Posted on: March 05, 2020 06:33 AM | Permalink

Comments (5)

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hey Mike....great discussion! For me escalating is a last resort as I worry about the impact on relationships. I have had my wrist slapped for escalating too late.

Interesting perspective. I have first hand experience where team members strongly opposed informing management of issues. To them that’s unnecessary escalation. All I wanted to do was maintain transparency on what is going on. What you shared helps a lot!

Thank you for this important and provocative discussion Colin. Interestingly where escalation path is unclear do you think it indicates a good or bad practice?

Great insight Mike and I agree with Al on this that escalatoin should be one of last resorts if you are practicing emotional intelligence and working on building a future focused productive relationship wiht your counterpart. Trying to reframe the issue so you can see it from the the other persons persepctive and looking for the optimal win / win solution is a good first step. There is a point in time though where you have to escalate to keep a project on time in some cases and ensuring that the other person isn't caught off card with that need via full disclosure it the best solution to ensure you do not burn bridges.

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