Elevating an issue
by Allen Dixon, PMP, and Dorothy Kirk, PMP
Taking an unresolved issue to a higher level can make a world of difference to project success and client contentment.
ONE OF THE MORE DIFFICULT tasks for project managers is to know what authority they have to make decisions or resolve issues. Sometimes they clearly have the authority and obligation to make a decision. But at other times, the decision or issue exceeds their authority. In this case, they must refer the decision or issue to someone higher in the management structure. Elevating a decision or an issue is the process of raising it to the next level of management. Elevation of an issue does not necessarily indicate a failure, but simply that an action is required at the next level of management. That action might be making a critical decision, establishing a direction, or advising the project manager.
All projects encounter issues and concerns that are most effectively resolved by the levels above the project manager. It is best for the project manager to be proactive and raise these issues before the client does. The project manager's proactive posture increases the chances for a positive resolution. Any project manager who fails to elevate issues runs a high risk that the client will do this for him. When this happens, it is likely to disrupt the client relationship and set the pattern for future elevations.
Why Is It Important?
In general, elevating issues can accomplish several things:
First, it informs senior management of serious concerns, problems, or issues both internal and external. This gives management an opportunity to address them. Elevation avoids surprises.
Second, it communicates to the client or the project staff that the client's issue is significant and is getting the proper attention. This can soften the client's position. In other words, if senior management has reviewed the problem and offers a solution (even a compromise), the other party is more likely to accept it than if the project manager had suggested it. The client naturally feels his concerns received a proper hearing and this is the best that he can expect. Whereas a solution from the project manager is not as likely to be the best “deal” that can be struck because the project manager does not have the highest level of authority to grant exceptions.
Allen Dixon, PMP, is currently employed at CYBERTEK, a software company that caters to the insurance industry. He has more than 15 years of project management experience.
Dorothy Kirk, PMP, FLMI, is a business manager and currently heads up the Office of Project Management within CYBERTEK.
Finally, the process of elevation is helpful in its own right. For instance, the project manager must carefully assess the situation from more than one perspective in order to prepare the case for senior management's review. Further, the elevation process forces others to review the issue and increases the chance of finding alternative solutions.
How Do I Do It?
When elevation appears necessary, there are several elements to consider.
For one thing, elevation is not appropriate for every issue. It is fine to ask for time to consider a client's question or concern and schedule a follow-up meeting in the hope of resolving it, rather than agreeing to escalate on the spot. In the interim, other resources can be consulted so that the best answer can be provided. This is a viable alternative to elevating an issue.
When it seems clear that the project manager cannot resolve something at his or her level, then the project manager must be proactive. For example, you, the project manager, are more likely to generate a positive response by offering to discuss with senior management the client's concern, than by rejecting his idea until he threatens to call senior management or otherwise provoke you into elevating the issue. Even if you know that senior management backs your position, offer to discuss the issue with management and get back to the client with an answer. The answer may be the same as you would have given; but checking with senior management clarifies that this is the company's position, not just yours. It also demonstrates that you are willing to approach senior management on the client's behalf. This can help position you as a liaison rather than a mouthpiece.
Do not abdicate your role. If a client requests something beyond your authority to approve, position the elevation to show that you will continue to have a role in the decision. Do not tell the client that the issue is completely up to your boss. Avoid making it sound like it is out of your hands. Instead, you should offer to review the situation with senior management and get back to the client as soon as you can with a response.
There will be times when senior management should talk directly with the client, but even in that situation you should first respond to the client to let him know that this will occur. It is important to keep your place in the process. If you do not, you run the risk of being excluded in future issues. This is counterproductive for you, the company, the project, and the client. The whole point of elevating an issue is for each level to review it, make suggestions, and then work with the next level to resolve the problem.
When Should It Be Done?
Project managers should consider elevating an issue when any of the following occurs:
■ When there is a difference in how people are spending their time vs. what is stated in regular status reports.
Reader Service Number 018
Extreme Case. A significant amount of time is spent on a task that the client thinks has already been completed.
Typical Case. Staff is busy reworking a past deliverable, or only part of a major roadblock has been resolved, yet the client believes that the issue has been resolved or the deliverable has been successfully completed.
Goal. To inform management of the discrepancy. It is best to clarify this discrepancy as quickly as possible. At times, upper management can best present this message. Upper management can offer to clarify the exact status along with plans to rectify the discrepancy (for example, additional resources to catch up).
Do not abdicate your role. If a client requests something beyond your authority to approve, position the elevation to show that you will continue to have a role in the decision.
■ When the client raises a question that could change the direction of the project (add/remove phase, change time frame or scope, and so forth).
Extreme Case. Client hints that project may be shelved.
Typical Case. Client inquires about possibility of collapsing the next two phases together.
Goal. To alert management of potential change. The sooner management can be alerted, the more time to react and plan for alternatives.
■ When the project staff uncovers a flaw in the current strategy.
Extreme Case. One of the underlying assumptions upon which the project plan is based proves to be false.
Typical Case. The effort or approach to a mod turns out to be a significant understatement of what will actually have to be done to satisfy business needs of the client.
Goal. To alert management that the approach needs to be revisited. Again, escalation needs to be done quickly to allow more time to find alternatives. Management needs to inform the client in a timely manner, but this is easier if alternatives can be presented at the same time.
■ When a client registers a significant complaint with the project manager that exceeds her authority to resolve directly.
Extreme Case. Client claims that project is a disaster, and wants to cancel it.
Typical Case. Client feels that project is not making progress, quality is poor (at least in some areas), or he is being overcharged.
Goal. Obviously a client will elevate an issue if something is not done correctly. Offering to elevate it for the client can provide some additional time and begin to position both companies to compromise. Clients tend to make things sound worse than they are to make their point clear. As a service provider, the project manager and senior management have to be responsive, while at the same time they must stand up for the organization and ensure that everyone—including the client's upper management—comes away with a clear picture of what happened and the proposed solution. The key is to always follow up a poor performance with a good one. That will go a long way toward restoring the relationship. (In fact, if problems on both sides can be pointed out and then resolved, the relationship is likely to be stronger, although a bit more volatile than before.)
■ When the project staff raises concerns about morale, project success, or client acceptance.
Extreme Case. Staff is on the verge of giving up because of lack of progress, overtime, client issues, and so forth.
Typical Case. Staff feels that project has lost direction and that client satisfaction is very unlikely.
Goal. Elevating these concerns can help senior management stay in touch with staff. Senior management may be able to directly address the underlying issues; if not, management has been alerted to a potential retention problem. Elevation also makes staff members feel that their concerns will be heard and, to the degree possible, addressed.
Hints and Techniques
Of course, all of this takes a lot of judgment to implement. It is too easy to fall into the trap of letting the client push you to elevate everything. If that starts to happen, the best approach is to establish a set of meetings (weekly or monthly, depending on the severity of the problems) with the client and your senior management to review all open issues. Generally, if enough attention can be paid to the project, the number of issues will decline. Then at some point the meetings can be suspended, and the more normal project management approach should work.
It takes experience and a good working relationship with the client for projects to go smoothly. The judicious use of elevating issues is a powerful tool for a project manager. The more frequent and proactive your communications are with your client, the easier this is to do. It also helps to begin discussing potential problems, issues, and concerns as early as possible in the project. Clients want to believe that consultants can manage projects in a way that will ensure that they are foolproof. They view consultants as being expert enough to avoid all problems. This is naive but very comforting for them.
Clients are better served by having a more realistic view of the project. Discussing potential problems from the very beginning is a good way to lay the groundwork for this. Of course, the client is judging the project team and company in the early part of the project, so you want to avoid sounding like a pessimist. The real goal is to constantly educate the client on where the project is and what remains to be done. If the project is very complex and has built-in risks, this needs to be conveyed to the client in a detailed way so that he can understand the facts and then reach the same conclusion. Instead of being viewed as an alarmist, you are viewed as an expert.
At the beginning of the project, the project manager and client should jointly decide how the project is to be managed. Part of this would be defining the management process, which involves deciding how and when issues should be elevated. Not only will the project manager need to elevate issues to her management, but the client will need to escalate issues to his management as well.
EXPERIENCE, GOOD JUDGMENT, and judiciously involving both client and upper management can be major elements in the success of the current project and can help ensure that the client will want to do business with you again. Remember that elevation does not mean abdication. It should be a good indicator, however, of the expertise and maturity of all involved. ■
November 2000 PM Network