A few of the examples of weak project manager behavior that Neal Whitten highlights in his Too Soft! list directly relate to escalation.
This is not surprising, since escalation is a hard thing to do – it will usually put a PM directly in the cross-hairs of one or more stakeholders, and if the escalation was unnecessary, it will rebound on them.
It’s important for a PM to understand when escalation is warranted. Unfortunately, like the threshold test for pornography, you know it when you see it, but that subjectivity will occasionally cause false positives or negatives!
Some questions to consider include:
- Will it measurably affect your project’s success criteria or constraints? If an unresolved issue is going to cause your project to fail, the time for being nice has likely passed.
- Have you tried (and tried again) to address the issue through normal channels? As I’d referenced in an earlier article, some people persist in escalation when it is obviously not required – a direct communication would resolve the situation quicker and with less wasted effort for all concerned. Sometimes, this behavior is a form of “empire-building” or even a form of laziness (e.g. why use a sniper rifle when a tactical nuke would be simpler!). If you have exhausted all regular avenues and the issue still persists, then escalation might be the only answer.
- Have you asked an unbiased, but respected, third-party? Many times in the heat of the battle, we get so focused on an issue that we lose perspective, and escalation appears to be the only answer. This is the right time to leverage the services of a mentor who does NOT have skin in the game to provide some advice.
If escalation is required, don’t immediately shoot from the hip. To reduce blow-back, it’s a good idea to have a private discussion with the stakeholders that are likely to bear the brunt of your escalation to remind them of the project’s objectives, the impact of the issue on these objectives, remind them that you had tried to gain their assistance in resolving the issue and to let them know that you see no alternative other than bringing the issue to a higher authority.
A key for this discussion will be to focus on the issue and not the individual (no matter how often the stakeholder tries to draw you into THAT argument!). In a best case scenario, the implication of escalation might be sufficient to break the logjam on issue resolution, but at the very least you won’t have blind-sided the stakeholder if you have to follow through with the escalation.
Escalation is never a pleasant activity – you can guarantee that someone is going to be hurt by it. But always remember that if your project suffers because of your desire to be a nice guy/gal or because you are afraid of the repercussions, you can’t call yourself a professional project manager.