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Effective escalation in projects

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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.    

- Author of this post

Reinhard Wagner has been active for more than 30 years in the field of project- related leadership, in such diverse sectors as Air Defense, Automotive Engineering, and Machinery, as well as various not-for-profit organizations. As a Certified Projects Director (IPMA Level A), he has proven experience in managing projects, programmes and project portfolios in complex and dynamic contexts. He is also an IPMA Certified Programme and Portfolio Management Consultant, and as such supports senior executives in developing and improving their organizational competence in managing projects. For more than 15 years, he has been actively involved in the development of project, programme and portfolio management standards, for example as Convenor of the ISO 21500 “Guidance on Project Management” and the ISO 21503 “Guidance on Programme Management”. Reinhard Wagner is Past President of IPMA and Chairman of the Council, Honorary Chairman of GPM (the German Project Management Association), as well as Managing Director of Tiba Managementberatung GmbH.

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4 responses to “Effective escalation in projects

  1. David Wilemon use to say that the Project Manager needs upward access and effective communication. Upward access means the boss needs to read your E-mails or answer your phone calls. That is necessary for Richard’s 6 steps to work. Bob Youker

  2. Saroj Kumar Upadhyay is a Civil Engineering Professional with MBA. He is Enterprenure. He is director of Himalaya Urja Bikas Company Limited that is currently implementing Upallo Khimti 12 MW and Upper Khimti – II 7 MW hydro power projects in Nepal. He is IPMA certified International Assessor and has assessesed for Excellance Award since 2011 till date. He is currently working as Director – Technical and Project Management of NRS 315 Million Project. He is Arbitrator, third party technical auditor, Project Analyst. He has worked as High Level Inspection and Monitoring Committee Member and Technical Advisor to the Prime Ministers Office in Nepal.

  3. In almost all the Infrastructure Development Project in Nepal we have Cost Overrun, Time Overrun, Quality Degradation , Claims and Litigation. This is the case in most of the Private and Public Projects. We, while implementing Upallo Khimti 12 MW and Upper Khimti 07 MW Hydro Power Project, with NRS 315 Million Project trying to set an example for not escalating project and even within anticipated budget and time line. We are from the very begging taking care of escalation, and are asking to quote the price considering no escalation for the time frame of the project schedule. So far it’s working good. But we are just started….

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