Escalation Process in Project Management Guide

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Project escalation is an essential part of identifying and mitigating potential threats to the success of a project, yet many organizations fail to properly consider a plan for project escalation until problems arise, limiting their chances of successfully overcoming them. Read on to learn more about what project escalation is and how to properly devise a project escalation strategy. 

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What is Project Escalation?

Project escalation is a process that escalates awareness of project issues to higher-level stakeholders within an organization. The escalation process generally takes place after mediation attempts at the lower level of the organizational hierarchy have failed, requiring teams to relay challenges further up the chain of command. Depending on the severity of the situation, the project manager escalates the situation to inform higher-level management, executives, and in some cases, even external stakeholders. 


Read more: What is Project Management?


What Situations Could Create a Need for Project Escalation?

There are a variety of situations that can create a need for project escalation:

  • Risks or issues related to project objectives
  • Resource conflicts (such as budget overrun)
  • Poorly defined roles and responsibilities
  • Scope disagreements
  • Third-party dependencies

What is the Desired Outcome of Project Escalation?

When a situation progresses to require project escalation, the primary goal is to resolve the problem quickly before it threatens the success or continuation of the entire project. If handled properly, a thorough project escalation strategy ensures that any roadblocks in the project lifecycle are managed swiftly and appropriately.

Risks & Rewords of the Escalation Process

Rewards

  • Quick Problem Solving: When issues within a project are identified quickly and are found to be a significant enough threat to the project to warrant escalation, teams can nip problems in the bud before they become a larger threat to project success. Ultimately, when addressed promptly, most project escalation issues are resolved without significant blowback.
  • Precedent Setting: The main goal of project escalation is to solve problems, which inherently helps give organizations a better sense of how to handle those same problems should they come up again in the future. Once a problem has been identified and addressed the first time, it sets a precedent for how those problems should be managed moving forward.
  • Enhanced Communication: The process of identifying and communicating issues in the project lifecycle between various levels of the organization and stakeholders can significantly improve organizational communication overall. Once the proper communication channels have been established, it’s much easier for teams to communicate updates of any type with other levels of the organization and even external stakeholders.
  • Better Allocation of Resources: When issues are promptly resolved by allocating the proper resources, it ultimately prevents the waste of even more resources down the line. For example, when personnel, technology, and funding are allocated strategically in response to a project escalation, the overall negative impact of problems will likely be reduced.
  • Increased Team Confidence: Project escalation increases the confidence of the project team by demonstrating that those higher up in the organization hear their concerns and can validate those problems by taking swift action.
  • Realignment with Project KPIs: Addressing problems in the project lifecycle quickly ensures that teams can realign the project back on track with essential KPIs, making it easier to refocus by prioritizing the most important steps that need to be taken to complete a project successfully.

Risks

  • Unclear Communication: When project escalation occurs, the quality of the communication that takes place between the project team and other stakeholders (internal or external) is the single best predictor of whether or not resolution efforts will succeed. When communication is poor, either because of miscommunication, misunderstandings, or uncertainty from either party, it can create major problems, making it much less likely that project escalation will lead to a positive outcome.
  • Slow Action: After a project manager has relayed their concerns to higher management, it’s up to them to take action. Oftentimes, delays occur in addressing the problems, either because of issues that are out of their control (such as the need for more personnel that takes time) or because of other contributing factors such as communication breakdowns or even technological errors. 
  • Disputes and Cultural Issues: Company culture can also greatly affect the outcome of project escalation. Some organizations might be resistant to address project escalation for any number of political or cultural reasons, which can lead to unnecessary friction and tension between project managers, executives, and higher-ups.
  • Threatening Team Independence: If teams develop too much of a dependence on higher management and stakeholders to solve project problems, they might lose a sense of independence that is crucial to their ability to solve problems independently and work to complete projects successfully. To succeed in the long run, project teams need to learn how to identify which issues can be solved autonomously vs. which issues warrant escalation to higher levels of management.

FAQS

Any number of situations can justify project escalation, but making the call to escalate a project can be a tough choice for a project manager to make. In general, any situation that can cause major project disruptions, affect team morale, create budget issues, or threaten the overall success of the project should be escalated as soon as possible.

Project escalation can be intimidating to project managers because, simply put, no one ever wants to approach higher-ups and executives and report negative updates on a project. Younger or less experienced project managers, in particular, might lack the experience and confidence to escalate a project. Yet project escalation is crucial to managing projects successfully, and in the long run, it’s always better to address issues sooner rather than later.

While the best escalation practices are in some way dependent on your unique organization, whenever possible, escalation should take place through a face-to-face discussion, ideally through an in-person or virtual meeting. Many organizations rely heavily on emails as a means of project communication, but reply times can be slow, which delays any action toward addressing issues.

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