Escalate is not a dirty word


by Neal Whitten, Contributing Editor

ONE OF THE MOST DIFFICULT but common situations we face in our jobs is how to resolve critical problems when we must depend on someone else—someone who chooses not to accommodate our needs.

I have often been asked to come into organizations and assess progress on a project. In every case the top problem I identify is that the most critical problems are not receiving adequate attention. I am talking about problems that, if not solved quickly, will cause significant harm—missed schedules, compromised quality, cost overruns, lost customers. If inattention to these critical problems has such an impact on an organization's success, why aren't we better at wrestling them to closure?

Let's look at some reasons: We are afraid of conflict. We are afraid we will “burn bridges.” We think we will lose on the matter anyway. We don't want someone to look bad. We don't want to look bad. We aren't convinced our position is correct. We don't want to expend the time and energy. We don't know how to resolve such conflicts professionally. We aren't sure what is acceptable behavior in our organization.

When two parties are unable to agree on the resolution of a problem and that problem, if left unresolved, can have a significant impact on the project, it becomes an issue.

After an earnest attempt by the two parties to negotiate a resolution without success, higher levels of the project leadership must be called upon for help. This is called an escalation. Here are escalation guidelines to follow:

img Escalate only after a sincere attempt has been made to resolve the issue with the other party.

img The dissenter is responsible for escalating the issue. This means that if you are the one who needs the other party to come around, you must initiate the escalation.

img Initiate the escalation within two workdays of knowing the problem is unresolvable at its current level. Usually the escalation meeting can occur within two days. If you are escalating to high levels of management, initiate the escalation within two workdays in order to get your meeting on their busy calendars.

img Escalate the problem, not the person. Don't make the disagreement personal. You are escalating because the issue is a business matter that must be resolved.

img Always inform your management prior to initiating an escalation. Your managers must be aware of your intent because you will need their support. They may be able to help in preparing your position, or they may wish to attend. However, if they do not support your position, management might direct you to abstain.


img Always inform involved parties before beginning the escalation. You want all parties prepared, to ensure the escalation meeting is productive and focused on facts.

img When an escalation is under way, do not stop working the plan-of-record. If some aspect of the plan is being escalated or might be affected by the outcome, don't wait for the issue to be resolved before continuing work on the plan. No one can know for certain the outcome of the escalation; keep everyone marching together until officially decided otherwise.

Escalate is not a dirty word. Escalations are a healthy and essential part of business: they provide a check-and-balance mechanism to help ensure the proper course is taken; resolve problems early; help reduce frustration among project members; improve overall productivity by reducing rework that can result from implementing the wrong plan of record; help prioritize work activities; and encourage employee participation and ownership of problems.

There are different approaches to conducting an escalation. Some organizations insist that the next levels of management on both sides of an issue be present; others allow the dissenter to take the issue up the other chain of management with optional presence of the dissenter's management. Be certain that you understand the approach followed in your organization.

When two parties disagree on the resolution of an issue, usually neither party is “wrong.” Both parties are correct from their own points of view and missions. Often a person with broader responsibility for the project is required to resolve the issue and weigh the options more objectively on behalf of the overall impact to the project.

After an issue is resolved, both parties should abide by the decision made. Only if significant new information becomes available that could reverse the decision should the escalation be revisited. Otherwise, consider the issue closed.

Remember, unresolved issues can bring a project to its knees. They deserve the highest priority attention. ■


Neal Whitten, PMP, president of The Neal Whitten Group, is a speaker, trainer, consultant and author in project management and employee development. His books include Managing Software Development Projects: Formula for Success (Wiley & Sons, 1995), and Becoming an Indispensable Employee in a Disposable World (Prentice Hall, 1995).

PM Network • June 1997



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