What is escalation and why do many Project Managers put a lot of time and effort into avoiding it?

I was reflecting on this after yet another request had come into my team to go and provide some remedial services to a project that had gone into "escalation".

My opinion is that escalation, like alcohol, is good when used moderately.

I look at it as just one of the tools from stakeholder management a PM can employ to resolve an issue or get a decision made.
By escalating, raising awareness or getting help from higher levels in your own organization (or the customer's), you can make progress before the situation gets out of hand. 
Escalation in a project is like driving a car with manual transmission.
You can drive everywhere in second gear, but it is bad for the engine, makes a lot of noise and it's just plain inefficient.
Changing gear up or down at the appropriate time delivers a smoother ride for everyone.

Likewise with a problematic issue in a project. You can keep working the issue harder on your own, or with the resources you have available.
But, timely escalation gives the project stakeholders the opportunity to contribute to the project with a decision or resource at a time when it will help, rather than when it is too late.
Unfortunately this is what usually happens. Senior stakeholders are asked for help too late to avoid a significant impact on the project and when significantly more resource or time is needed to get back on track.

I thought I might have a closer look at why escalation is such a taboo subject in the world of Project Lifestyles.

I do wonder if part of the problem is the loose, informal use of the term escalation.

Are we referring to the situation getting worse or the process that the PM or the customer has to follow to resolve the issue?

A quick swing by our friends at Wikipedia and Wiktionary is a good start to checking what we mean.

From Wiktionary
escalation (plural escalations)
an increase or rise, especially one to counteract a perceived discrepancy
a deliberate or premeditated increase in the violence or geographic scope of a conflict

From Wikipedia
Escalation is the phenomenon of something getting more intense step by step, for example a quarrel, or,
notably, military presence and nuclear armament during the Cold War. (Compare to escalator,
a device that lifts something to a higher level.)
The term is often said to be originally coined by Herman Kahn in his 1965 work On Escalation. While the OED records escalatory first used in that work, escalation is recorded as early as 1938.

In psychology it is a change in behavior, usually from stable or acceptable towards unstable or unacceptable.

OK...that's maybe more info than we need right now - but it might be useful...

Given that I try not to cry over spilt milk, but reach for the mop, I'll treat the term escalation in the sense of escalating an issue with the stakeholders to get it resolved (an increase or rise, especially one to counteract a perceived discrepancy).

So now we agree on what we're talking about, some questions arise.
What is it that leads to issues needing escalation in the first place? every PM tries to run a "no surprises" project, right?How do we know when to escalate and how do we do we avoid perceived downsides of escalating?

Getting Into It
Issues require escalation when the authority, effort or resources required to resolve them are beyond those which the PM has available. Unfortunately the PM almost never knows this when an issue first presents itself.

Additionally, PMs are usually people who are used to solving problems successfully (otherwise they would not have become – or appointed as – PMs). This being the case they also have a tendency to wrestle with a issue for too long before requesting assistance. This is under the assumption that they will be able to solve this problem too – they just need a bit more time or resource etc etc.

Both of these factors mean that PMs usually have a structural tendency to escalate too late – making it even more difficult for the steering committee or other stakeholders to provide meaningful assistance.

Successful Escalation
How do you guard against your own tendency to wrestle too long with an issue?

Part of it is explicitly setting expectations for yourself and your team on turnaround times for decisions or the delivery date for issue resolutions. If the time boundary is crossed you immediately have a first indicator that you might need to escalate.

The second part of the equation is having explicitly defined escalation paths that you use appropriately.
This means you document the names of the stakeholders that you (can) escalate specific kinds of issues to when needed.

The third part is practice. Get your governance structure and stakeholders used to the idea of controlled/timely escalation. It's all part of the game of project management: changing gears to match the terrain.

Dealing With Downsides

Escalating an issue is always an uncomfortable process, and choosing the right moment to escalate is an art.

PMs may find themselves in a cultural or political environment where they feel they cannot ask for assistance or actively communicate about issues without negative consequences for themselves or the team.

The "Cry Wolf" fear can be a real barrier to PM's seeking assistance to resolve issues.

There are no magic bullets for this one but basic good PM practice can help hold a mirror up to your stakeholders and help them maintain a healthy attitude to escalation.

  • Explicitly document expectations on timeframes expected for tasks such as customer decisions, deliverable reviews, milestone completion acceptance
  • Explicitly document and use the escalation paths. A steering committee role should not be a rubber stamping sinecure. Senior people should be there to help with the tough issues, not just to preside over the easy stuff.
  • Have your issue and the required resolution or decision crisply documented to help your stakeholders help you.
Happy escalation!


Thanking you for the description about Escalation. I really find it helpful.

Posted by lalendra sahu on March 11, 2012 at 10:23 AM CET #

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