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A Guide to Escalation in Project Management

While most project management plans have an escalation mechanism defined, very few project managers make use of the process. Many use avoidance tactics for fear of conflict. Others overreact to every problem that arises. Both of these approaches have negative effects on project success.

Escalating an issue at the right time to the right person with the right amount of information is an art practiced and perfected by seasoned project managers (PMs). This guide focuses on best practices and tips for effective escalation for project health.

What is Project Escalation?

Applied to the project context, escalation is 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 perform a certain activity they are responsible for in an agreed-upon timeframe, it may be necessary to escalate the issue to the superior for resolution.

Risks or issues related to project objectives, resource conflicts, ill-defined roles and responsibilities, scope disagreements, and third-party dependencies are all situations requiring escalation. They require higher-level intervention because often the authority, decision-making, resources, or effort required to resolve them are beyond a project manager’s role.

PMs manage projects and not direct reports. Issues with team members requiring higher-level intervention can range from information-only to immediate response escalations to keep management aware.

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.

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Why Escalation May Be Challenging 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. At times, a project manager may be hesitant to escalate the matter for any of the following reasons:

  • Escalation creates immediate conflict as it can be seen as a complaint against the person involved.
  • There is a fear of backlash, anger, and even revenge, as people tend to take escalation personally and not professionally.
  • It feels easier to struggle with the issue using available resources before requesting assistance in the hope it will work itself out.
  • Inexperienced project managers may feel intimidated to escalate against experienced team members, senior management, or clients.
  • There is a fear of the perception that the project is out of control, and the project manager is not able to manage it.
  • There is a lack of understanding of how to use the escalation mechanism to solve the problem.
  • There is no specific escalation plan at the project level.

When is the Right Time to Escalate a Project?

The biggest challenge in escalation is timing. The project manager should best understand the right time to escalate an issue. Knowing when to escalate and when to handle an issue on your own takes time and experience. Choosing to wait out an important issue or doing it too late is not the answer.

Timely escalation gives project stakeholders a chance to make a decision or provide additional resources, if required. Waiting may be costly when stakeholders are approached for help too late to avoid a significant impact on the project.

Method of escalation

It’s important to define escalation paths according to a matrix. This way it is clear who on the management team is responsible for handling each type of problem. Use these steps to escalate an issue up the chain of command.

  1. Formally inform the decision-makers about the problem.
  2. Analyze the source of the problem and potential project impacts.
  3. Provide options for problem resolution, and highlight the advantages and disadvantages of each.
  4. Present the situation and options to the decision-makers with recommendations for the best path forward.
  5. Explain what will happen to the project if no decision is reached.
  6. Document everything.

A few questions to ask to determine escalation timing

Has the project manager made a solid attempt to find a solution to the problem to no avail?

Will further delay in resolving the issue have a negative impact on the project deliverables?

Is this an issue stakeholders would expect to be escalated to them if a timely resolution is not reached quickly?

Does the project manager need to consult any other stakeholder or expert not currently engaged for resolution?

Types of Escalation in Project Management

There are three main types of issues that require escalation during the course of a project. Any one of these can be a cause of major delay and unexpected cost if left to resolve themselves.

  • Scope issues and delays in work
  • Major decisions or change that needs to be made
  • Resource bottlenecks or changes to the team

Tips to Escalate a Project Issue Successfully

Before escalating a matter, the project manager must ensure the necessary analysis and data gathering is done and that they are not too quick to escalate without completing their responsibility.

Consider these tips when escalating an issue:

  • Document an escalation matrix for the project that includes contacts and paths for different escalation types.
  • Confirm project stakeholders are well-aware of the escalation process.
  • Create a project culture where people understand it’s okay to escalate issues to the next level of management for assistance.
  • Respect service-level agreements (SLAs) of the other party for responding. For example, if the SLA is to respond in three days, give it three days.
  • Assuming there is no response from the other party in the SLA period, you may first need to send a formal and gentle reminder.
  • Avoid frequent and unnecessary escalation, as it could backfire for when you really need it.
  • Arrange a separate meeting, call, or explicit email to escalate a matter, and keep it focused on the specific issue.
  • Escalate only to the right stakeholders, and do not involve everyone in the issue.
  • Don’t make it personal.
  • Suggest solutions.
  • 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.
  • When vertical escalation does not work, use horizontal methods, indirect or innovative methods, and any other direction until you arrive at a solution.
  • Take action if escalation fails, such as terminating the project or face-to-face meetings with senior management.

Escalation in project management is a simple-to-use technique and can be easily documented in the project’s plans and processes. Understand that because it can involve critique and negative emotions, it may be challenging for project managers to handle alone.

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