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.

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. 

1 Wrike

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Wrike is the most powerful work management platform on the market, enabling teams to plan projects and collaborate in real time. Our award-winning software is trusted by 20,000+ companies across the globe, including Sony, Estée Lauder, and Siemens.

Wrike’s customizable features include Gantt charts, request forms, dashboards, cross-tagging, time tracking, and proofing. Integrate with 400+ apps from the likes of Microsoft, Google, and Salesforce. Automate repetitive tasks and achieve 50% faster planning. Work from anywhere with 100% access to your files via our mobile and desktop apps.

Whether you’re a small startup or an established brand, Wrike has the solution for you. Paid plans start at $9.80/user/month. Join our community of 2.3 million — start your free two-week trial today.

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2 Smartsheet

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Smartsheet is a leading work execution platform that has real-time work management features, collaboration and automation tools. Users are presented with a familiar and easy-to-use spreadsheet-like interface. However, it has enterprise-grade capabilities that even Fortune 500 companies like Cisco, Bayer, HP, and PayPal are confident to adopt in their business. Strong project management features enable teams to utilize different views of real-time data, and switch easily from Gantt, card, grid and calendar views. Smartsheet has automatic update requests, and can be used for waterfall and agile projects, product launch, sprint planning, and more. The resource management feature provides users the visibility who is busy, and who is not, in real-time. They can also attach files, share sheets, get notified, view the activity log, export, email, and print.

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3 monday.com

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monday.com Work OS is an award-winning no-code work management platform that helps teams manage projects and workflows more efficiently.

Used by 152,000+ customers worldwide, this fully customizable software lets you plan, manage, and track every project in one place. monday.com offers time-saving and easy-to-use features such as automations, time tracking, document sharing, and real-time collaboration. Multiple board views such as Gantt and Kanban help you structure and navigate tasks and projects the way you prefer, and dashboards give a high-level overview of your progress.

In addition, integrations with apps such as Outlook, Microsoft Teams, Gmail, and Excel, allow you to easily continue working with your favorite tools from within the platform. monday.com also offers dedicated solutions, such as monday dev and monday sales CRM, designed to answer the needs of specific industries.

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4 Zoho Projects

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Zoho Projects is an online project management application that helps its users to plan projects, collaborate with employees and clients, keep track of time, manage documents, and generate charts and reports. Users work on a central platform where they can keep track of progress, discuss ideas, communicate easily and stay updated. It is cloud-based and highly accessible, where user data is kept safe with stringent security systems. The software is also scalable depending on the number of projects, with the option to add more features. Zoho Projects is a cloud-based project management tool that helps you plan your work, track it efficiently, and collaborate with your team wherever they are.

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5 ClickUp

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ClickUp is one of the highest-rated project management tools today. Use Docs, Reminders, Goals, Calendars, Chat, scheduling, assigned comments, custom views, & more with this all-in-one project management tool.

Used by 800,000+ teams in companies like Airbnb, Google, and Uber, it brings all of your projects into a single app! Built for teams of all sizes and industries, Our fully customizable & proprietary features make it a must-have for anyone wanting to keep project management in one place.

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