Escalation Process in Project Management: A Complete Guide

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Key takeaways
  • Project escalation refers to the process of relaying a project issue to higher-level stakeholders for timely resolution.
  • The escalation process in project management starts with identifying the problem to be addressed and defining it in a way that can be easily understood by stakeholders.

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Very few projects are executed flawlessly. Oftentimes, we encounter risks, roadblocks, and bottlenecks that all have the potential to derail even the most meticulously planned projects. While most issues can easily be mitigated by an experienced project team, others need to follow the established escalation process to get the attention of executive project stakeholders. Learn when and how to escalate a project here.

How to Initiate the Escalation Process in Project Management

Project escalation is the process of bringing a project issue up to a higher authority for timely resolution. There is no standard procedure when it comes to escalating project issues, but here’s a step-by-step guide to help you get started.

1. Identify the problem

Start by identifying the problem(s) that you want to address and explain it in a way that can be easily understood by all types of stakeholders. Failure to do so could make it difficult to comprehend how serious the problem is, which could lead to a poor or mismanaged escalation.

2. Gather evidence

Take some time to gather pieces of evidence or supporting facts that reinforce the need for project escalation. While this step is optional, presenting evidence that further highlights the issue at hand will definitely help your cause. Make sure you have a copy of any records, receipts, or agreements that will be presented once the issue is ready for escalation.

3. Delegate responsibilities

If any of the tasks or activities that need to be done as part of the escalation process can be handled by project team members, make sure to assign these responsibilities and prioritize them accordingly.

4. Determine the correct authority

Before initiating a project escalation, it’s critical that you know the right authority figures to speak to. Approaching the wrong stakeholders will only muddy the process further, and the case might even get lost in the day-to-day shuffle. You might even need to present your case to multiple stakeholders in order to achieve the desired result.

5. Make your presentation

Now it’s time to make your case for the escalation. Describe the issue as clearly and concisely as possible, present any evidence you’ve gathered, and highlight any attempts you’ve already made to resolve the issue. The more information you can provide during your presentation,  the more likely that stakeholders will understand the problem for themselves, which should lead to a positive and productive escalation.

When to Escalate a Project

Some issues are so severe that there is no other choice but to implement an escalation plan. Generally speaking, the most common escalation pathways include:

  • Problems that affect multiple projects simultaneously
  • Issues that result in missed deadlines and need for extensions
  • Difficulties with resource allocation or management
  • Complications with project budgeting, including cost overruns
  • Deficiencies that affect the quality of the final project

Unfortunately, the decision on whether or not to escalate to higher authority as a way to manage a project crisis isn’t always obvious. In cases like this, consider asking yourself a few questions. How you answer them will determine when or if you should begin the project escalation procedure.

  • Will the problem affect the final project deliverables in a negative way?
  • Have you been unsuccessful in previous attempts to address the issue?
  • Has the problem ever occurred in past projects?

If your answer is yes to any of the above questions, then it’s probably a good time to take action and escalate the issue to a higher authority.

Best Practices for Managing Project Escalations

Managing projects requires adopting good practices that are proven to drive the project toward success. The same applies when it comes to escalations. Experienced project managers adopt best practices during project escalation that help standardize the process while ensuring a fair and consistent approach to every problem.

Avoid placing blame

Do not place blame on any team, individual, or entity. When a problem has reached the point of escalation, the blame game isn’t going to do any good. It’s far more important to avoid disagreement within the project team and just follow the escalation process and reach a resolution as quickly and efficiently as possible, so you need to focus all your efforts on solving the problem.

Take responsibility

As a project manager, you’re responsible for your team’s actions. Instead of singling out individuals, it’s a better approach to shoulder the responsibility as a group. Not only does it alleviate some of the stress and embarrassment brought about by individual shortcomings, but it also shows the entire team that you’re dedicated to reaching a resolution instead of focusing on the negatives.

Remain objective

It’s important to take an objective approach when escalating a project. While it’s easy to let your emotions take over, especially when you’ve dedicated countless hours to a project, this isn’t the best approach. Instead, try to think through the situation calmly, rationally, and objectively.

Document everything

Make sure to document everything related to the escalation process. While you should already have access to the initial project documentation, you’ll likely have to add details about the specific problem, any steps you’ve taken to try and remedy the situation, and any recommended actions. Don’t forget to create post-escalation documentation as well, as you may need to review these documents if similar issues arise in the future.

Finalize within 30 days

Try to finalize each escalation within 30 days. While this might not be possible in every case, it emphasizes the importance of every single escalation without disrupting normal operations over a prolonged period. If nothing else, the 30-day deadline gives you a benchmark for the productivity of your key project stakeholders.

Benefits and Consequences of Project Escalation

Projects that follow the escalation path in project management will benefit you, your team, and your organization in a variety of ways. While some of these benefits will be noticeable immediately, others take days, weeks, or even months to take hold. These include:

  • Builds stronger teams: Successful escalations serve as highly effective team-building exercises for everyone involved. It boosts confidence and morale, helping team members stay committed and motivated.
  • Establishes a precedent: In the case of recurring issues, successfully escalating and resolving a problem ultimately sets a precedent that can be referenced to in future projects.
  • Ensures the achievement of milestones: Unresolved issues can quickly derail any project, so it’s best to address these problems as early and efficiently as possible—and project escalations are a good opportunity to do that. 

Conversely, there are some drawbacks and potential consequences of escalating a project. These include:

  • Cultivates disputes in the workplace: In extreme cases, escalation in project management has the potential to cause disruption or dispute in the workplace. These issues should be closely monitored throughout the escalation process to keep everything—and everyone—in check.
  • Elevates project costs: Some problems can’t be addressed without having to spend more than what’s been planned, which could lead to cost overruns and reduced funding for other departments or for future projects.
  • Causes stakeholders to lose trust: Severe or repeated problems could result in stakeholders losing trust in the PM and individual team members.

Both the benefits and the consequences need to be considered before moving forward with a project escalation. Although the potential consequences shouldn’t deter you from escalating a project when needed, it’s important to consider the negatives along with the positives.

FAQs

Choosing when to escalate a project is one of the toughest decisions a project manager has to make. There are numerous reasons why an experienced PM might want to escalate a project, but it really depends on your project and the industry you are in. Generally speaking, any issue that can cause project delays, reduce team morale, or create budgeting issues should be escalated as soon as these problems come to light. Any other issues—and whether or not to escalate the project—can be made on a case-by-case basis.

Learning how to handle escalations in project management only comes with experience. Nobody really wants to provide a negative report to their superiors and stakeholders, so many try to avoid escalation at all costs. The problem is, doing so can cause irreparable harm to the project or even tarnish your reputation as a project manager. For best results, it’s advisable to address any problems as soon as they arise, even if that means escalating the issue up the chain of command.

The best approach when escalating a project really depends on your industry, your organization, and your project. When you do decide that it’s time to escalate, however, you should approach your stakeholders in a face-to-face environment. For those who work in the same office, this is best done through an in-person meeting. Those who follow a remote or hybrid setup might be able to schedule a virtual meeting. Although many professionals use email or instant messaging on a daily basis, these channels typically are the most suitable for a discussion of this type.

Most project escalation plans fit into one of three categories:

  • Automatic: These escalations are mandated by service level agreements (SLA) whenever certain violations occur.
  • Functional: Also known as a horizontal escalation, this type of escalation occurs when an issue is assigned to another team or individual based on their knowledge or skill set.
  • Hierarchical: Sometimes known as a vertical escalation, this escalation occurs when key stakeholders and higher-ups are required to resolve an issue.

Bottom Line

Despite the fact that it’s not a part of the original project scope, project escalation isn’t a sign of weakness or failure. Rather, it’s the final attempt to address a problem that, for one reason or another, has gone unresolved after previous attempts. Those who understand when, why, and how to escalate a project to the higher levels of their organization are a highly valued asset of any team.

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