A Guide to Escalation in Project Management

While most of project management plans or communication management plans have an escalation mechanism defined; in reality, very few project managers make an effective use of the escalation mechanism. Many of them try to avoid escalations in the fear of conflict; some overdo it for every next problem in the project. Both these approaches are harmful for projects. Escalating a project problem at the right time, to the right person with the right amount of information is an art to be cultivated by good project managers. This guide focuses on good practices and tips on effective escalation for project benefit.

What Is Project Escalation?

The general meaning of Escalation is: Increase in magnitude or intensity by bypassing the immediate person.

Applied to the project context, escalation is generally a formal process to highlight an issue at hand to a higher authority as per the escalation mechanism defined for the project. For example, if a certain project stakeholder is not willing to or is not able to do a certain activity he or she is responsible for, it is necessary to escalate the issue to the superior for resolution.

Risks or issues related to project objectives, resource and inter-group conflicts, ambiguous roles and responsibilities, scope disagreements, third party dependencies are some known situations calling for escalations. Such issues require higher level intervention because many times the authority, decision making, resources or effort required to resolve them are beyond a project manager’s horizon. At times, the project manager may want to involve higher authorities for information-only escalations to keep them abreast of potential issues in the project.

Understanding the right use of escalation technique is vital for project managers. Escalation should be treated as a professional act and should be done in an effective way. Project managers should escalate timely if something is blocking the project and is beyond the project manager’s control. One should not hesitate to escalate within the performing organization and in the client’s organization as well. A proactive escalation and risk communication is far better than unpleasant surprises requiring costly fixes to the project.

One important aspect of project task assignment and management that should be noted here is project management software: though it won’t entirely remove the need for escalation, it will delineate specific and reasonable goals that team members can meet, if used properly. 

Software is an essential part of organizing successful projects, and it can even help managers with the escalation process if need be. Escalation is a simple-to-use technique and can be easily documented in the project’s plans and processes, but because it can involve critique and negative emotions, it’s challenging for project managers to handle.

Why Is Escalation Difficult for a Project Manager?

Escalation, though a known and formal mechanism, is a dicey art a project manager has to cultivate to effectively resolve project bottlenecks. However, many a times, a project manager is hesitant to escalate the matter, some key reasons being:

  • Escalation is an immediate conflict and clash creator as it is taken as a complaint against the person involved in the issue.
  • Escalation leads to counterattack and revenge as people tend to take escalation personally and not professionally.
  • Many people simply give up or suffer in silence because they hesitate to escalate due to fear of backlash or anger of the person.
  • Some project managers feel ego issues in escalating the matter or communicating project risks.
  • Some project managers prefer to struggle with the issue using available resources too long before requesting assistance (under the assumption that they will be able to solve it themselves).
  • Junior or new project managers will not dare to escalate against experienced team members, senior management or client side people.
  • Escalation builds a perception that the project is out of control and the project manager is not able to manage it.
  • Some project managers do not know how to use the escalation mechanism to solve the problem.
  • The PMO has not created a generic escalation plan, or there is no specific escalation plan at the project level.

However, escalation is necessary if the matter is not getting resolved on time and the delay is impacting the other activities of the project. Escalation is a kind of proactive risk communication where the project manager is highlighting the bottleneck to the next level in the hierarchy for attention and quick resolution. A good project manager must cultivate the habit of escalating important matter whenever and wherever necessary.

When Is the Right Time to Escalate a Project?

The real difficulty or challenge in escalating an issue is the right timing to raise it. We all have heard this story of a shepherd-boy who used to falsely cry “wolf-wolf” for getting villagers’ help. Soon the villagers stopped believing him. When the wolf truly came, no one paid attention to his cries, nor anyone helped him.

The project manager should also understand the right time to escalate the issue. If the project manager escalates minor issues every time, he or she may be tagged as an escalation manager. So, when the project manager is in real trouble and wants to escalate a serious issue, he or she may not get the right attention from the superiors to resolve the issue.

However, not escalating an important issue or doing it too late is also not right. Timely escalation gives the superiors a chance to contribute to the project more effectively with a decision or providing more resources when required. If it is too late, the stakeholders may have less and more costly options. Unfortunately this is what usually happens. Senior stakeholders are approached for help too late to avoid a significant impact on the project.

Some questions which can help a Project manager decide whether it is the right time to escalate:

  • Has the project manager made a good attempt to find a solution to the problem with whatever authority and resources available, but has found a dead end?
  • Will any further delay in resolving the issue have negative impact on the project deliverables?
  • Is this an issue that the higher authority would expect to be escalated to them if timely resolution is not reached?
  • Does the project manager need to consult any other stakeholder or expert for resolving the issue?
  • Can the Project Manager reach out to these stakeholders or experts directly? Or, is escalation the only option to get their involvement?

How to Escalate a Project Effectively

Before escalating the matter, the project manager needs to ensure that the necessary analysis and data gathering is done. Many impatient project managers are too quick to escalate without attending to their share of responsibility.

Here are some ways to effectively use the project escalation mechanism:

  • During the initial stages of the project, have a properly defined, agreed upon escalation matrix with escalation contact points, escalation paths for different escalation areas and levels. Explicitly document this escalation matrix for the project.
  • Ensure that the project stakeholders are well aware of the escalation process – which issues should be raised to whom, and within which time frame.
  • Create a project culture where people genuinely believe it’s OK to escalate the issues timely to the next level of management without any fear or aggravating the issue.
  • While escalating, analyze the situation with data points and make sure you have done your part of the job well before escalating.
  • Wait for the Service Level Agreements (SLAs) of the other party for responding. For example, if the SLA to respond is 3 days, it is not right to escalate the issue before 3 days.
  • Assuming that you have done your part of the job and still there is no response from the other party in the SLA period, you may first need to send a formal and gentle reminder.
  • Avoid the Cry-Wolf scenario. Avoid frequent and un-necessary escalation. If you do not, your management may see you as an incompetent at your job – and your escalation may not get the attention it deserves when it really needs it.
  • Arrange a separate meeting or a call or an explicit email to escalate the matter. Keep it focused to the specific issue and make it only one escalation at a time. Do not club multiple items and dilute the escalation matter.
  • Escalate only to the right stakeholders and do not involve all in the issue (by cc’ing everyone or by inviting all to the conference call).
  • Keep the escalation meeting or the call or the email focused on the issue and do not get personal with any remarks on the individual.
  • Escalate by giving background, highlight correct data, severity of the situation (high/medium/low) and suggested solutions.
  • If you are forwarding an issue to the higher up as an FYI, it’ll look more like as if you are upward delegating the matter. Have the right intentions to solve the matter yourself.
  • Document escalation with data points, and mark all necessary actions with action-owners. Mark the action owners in the ‘To’ field while communicating the escalation by email.
  • Involve two levels up in escalation depending on severity.
  • Reach out to peer managers for similar escalation situations to get lessons learned out of past experiences.
  • If the first escalation fails, have firmness to escalate it to the next level to make it higher and wider.
  • When vertical escalation does not work, use horizontal methods, indirect or innovative methods, and any other direction till you get the solution or the required attention for issue resolution.
  • Take strong measures from your side if nothing works with regards to the escalation. E.g. terminating the project, face-to-face meeting with senior management etc.

Project escalation is both an art and a science – it is also a risky art as escalation can lead to personal clashes and backfires. Identifying project situations where escalation is the only way out and having the courage to escalate these situations professionally to the right people is key to helping the project.

Top Project Management Tools to Avoid Escalation

Project management software isn’t a replacement for escalation: it’s a method of enhancing project development and completion and lowering the likelihood that a manager will need to escalate. Five of the best project management tools are listed below. 


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