Sometimes we have to escalate in projects, in order to overcome problems. Typically, the escalation is done by the project manager and is directed towards the next decision making body. This might be the project sponsor, a steering committee or a senior executive. It is one of the most important accountabilities of a project manager, to pro-actively inform the decision making body about problems. The earlier this body knows about the problem, the better it could overcome the situation before it gets worse. One of the challenges is, that the decision making body is not in the situation, lacks background information and does not really know about alternative ways for solving the problem. Therefore, the project manager is responsible for the process of the escalation from detection of the problem to the implementation of the decision. The following six steps describe an effective escalation in projects.
Step 1: Inform the decision making body about the problem (e.g. through a red flag in the project status report)
Step 2: Analyse the causes of the problem and the potential impact on the project (e.g. cost overruns or delays)
Step 3: Elaborate on alternative options for problem resolution together with their advantages and disadvantages
Step 4: Present the situation to the decision making body together with a recommendation for a way forward
Step 5: Explain to them what happened to the project if no decision falls today (e.g. cost overruns or delays)
Step 6: Document the results of your escalation to the decision making body and capture key lessons learned
For an effective escalation, however, some requirements must be met. On the one hand, a project manager must report openly about the problems in a project and not hide them until the last moment. Following the six steps requires the project manager to thoroughly analyse the problem, be creative in finding alternative options for problem resolution and stand firmly in front of the decision making body, which is typically a group of senior executives. A project manager might need to moderate these executives to come to a decision. It requires a project manager to be prepared, present the case in a convincing manner and build trust. On the other hand, the decision making body needs to be attentive, responsive and supportive. Whenever the project manager asks for a meeting, they should be open for it, prepare themselves before going for the decision making and try to get what the project manager is presenting them.
It requires openness, trust in the project manager and the team and willingness to decide, even if the problem is complex and the decision is difficult to make.