No one likes escalating problems to their Project Board or sponsor. It kind of smacks of ‘I can’t deal with this myself and need help’ and most of the project managers I know would rather struggle on than ask for help in most situations. When they do ask, you know it’s a huge deal and definitely worthy of their sponsor getting involved.
So what kind of situations is escalation appropriate for? When can’t you deal with the problems yourself? Here are 5 scenarios where it pays to escalate.
1. When you don’t know who will make the decision
You are not the person making the core, strategic decisions about your project. Yes, you can decide that if you jiggle your IT budget a bit you can spend extra on testing and less on some kit you managed to get at a discount, but you don’t get to make the call on whether the project is delivering the right things.
Someone else does that and you need to know who they are. If no one around you can give you a straight answer about who has the final say on design, sign off, functionality, branding and so on, then that’s a red flag for an escalation.
When you escalate this to your sponsor, be conscious of the fact that it might be them who is the right person to make the decision, and approach the conversation carefully!
2. When you can’t break down the silos
Teams that work in silos are difficult. If you’ve done everything in your power to get them to work together: regular team meetings, cross-functional workshops, bringing people together in person and virtually – and nothing is working, then escalation might be the answer.
You don’t want this to come across to your sponsor as ‘I can’t make my team play nicely together’ so be sure you have a real problem before you take up your sponsor’s time with it. Equally, it helps if you go to them with a solution in mind, and a list of the things you have tried that haven’t made a difference.
3. When you can’t control the extravagant changes
I know you have a strong change control process and you’re great at communication upwards and ensuring the team don’t engage with scope creep. But sometimes you get a stakeholder (or even the sponsor themselves) who says: “I don’t care, just do it.”
Be honest, you’ve probably met someone in your career who has this attitude. They can pull rank and get new stuff included in the scope of their project because they are who they are and no one says no to them. Or because the client they work with is the most important client for the business.
Changes are fine, as long as they are managed in a reasonable and controlled way. It’s the changes that come from people with greater authority and influence than you, who don’t seem to get that you can’t use nine women to deliver a baby in a month.
When you can’t ‘just do it’ within your existing scope, time, budget and quality targets then you need help to resolve that. Hopefully your manager or someone senior will be able to get through to your stakeholder that it isn’t possible and that the options are… whatever the options are.
4. When you can’t meet unrealistic expectations
A bit like the point above: you’ll sometimes come across stakeholders who want too much for what they are prepared to offer in return. It will either be a tiny budget or a tiny timescale. Everyone wants their project faster and cheaper and in many respects it’s your responsibility to ensure that you can schedule work appropriately and to use your budget management skills to deliver that.
But when you’ve exhausted schedule compression, crashing, paying overtime and adding extra people to the team, there comes a point where you just can’t get any faster. If your stakeholders are still demanding that you shave days off the delivery milestone, it’s time to escalate.
Before you do so, make sure you have sat with them to explain why you can’t do things faster and what you have done to ensure the work takes as little time as possible. Or costs as little as possible, if the challenge is on the budget. It may just be an issue of education. Not everyone knows how projects are put together and what goes into getting the work delivered on time.
All projects have politics – it’s simply the nature of the organisation. If you’re lucky, you won’t notice them because they are positive and the relationships at play work in favour of your project. If you aren’t so lucky the gossip, power plays and in-fighting will bring your project to a halt.
Sometimes you can handle conflict (because that’s what it is) yourself. It depends on the severity of the situation and the people involved. It might just take a conversation with the line managers involved, focusing on the overall business benefits and highlighting what their teams will get out of the project. But when you can’t handle the discussions yourself, or the people involved are way above your pay grade, then that’s the time to escalate.
Issues on projects are normal: you are going to hit some problems that you can’t deal with alone. Once you’ve exhausted the channels that are open to you, it’s time to consider your next options. You could struggle on in a difficult situation, putting more pressure on the team and delivering less and less. Or you could ask for help – which is effectively what an escalation is.
A good project sponsor will never mind that you have asked for their advice and intervention. If you know what you need them to do, ask them to do it. If you don’t, tell them what you have tried and what you think might be the next steps, and ask for their help in working out whether that’s the right path.
Escalations can be awkward conversations as you don’t want them to come across as if you aren’t in control or you are blaming someone else for issues outside your responsibility. Stay factual, talk about the implications for the project in terms of impact on key success criteria and take the emotions out of the conversation. Get over the awkwardness and you could find that your problems disappear quickly once your sponsor has resolved the issue on behalf of the team.