Escalating Issues Before the Explode

by Cindy Coan

Escalate early and escalate often

Poor escalation practices can kill a project. There is an art to finding the perfect balance for when and how to escalate.  “Crying wolf” can cause your project stakeholders to lose faith in the escalations and ignore them.  Escalating too late may not provide enough lead time to resolve the issue before it significantly impacts the project.

An escalation is the process of calling upon higher levels of project leadership or management to resolve an issue.

First, let’s acknowledge there are some issues that will sneak up on you.   One day all things are marching forward and everything is on track, and the next morning you have a critical issue. The key to handling these is to be sure you have identified the possible issues and built-in a mitigation plan that can be quickly implemented.

Now, let’s talk about those “creepers”.  Those issues that are peering around the corner – your gut tells you they are coming or that they are going to cause significant impact.  The “Escalate early and escalate often” mantra is what you will want to lean on.  Think of escalation in 3 levels:

  1. Awareness
  2. Highlight the Risk
  3. Alarms Sound!



This is when you first recognize the risk.  It is not currently in the way, but it is a possible issue.  At this point, add the risk to your risk matrix.  Make the project stakeholders aware that the concern could impact the project.  This might be in a project meeting or highlighted in a communication.  It is important that the concern is communicated and the possible mitigation strategies are discussed and agreed upon.  At this stage, your stakeholders and project team can give you indicators when to further escalate the issue.

Highlight the Risk

Moving to this level is judgement call.  Look at the probability of the issue impacting the project and the severity of the impact.  These are the factors that will help you understand if additional escalation is needed.  If these are high, begin to highlight these risks frequently.  Once a risk is on this High Probability/High Impact list, it should be noted on nearly every project status report, highlighted in every project meeting and communication.  You don’t want to fall into the “cry wolf” syndrome, so if you are mitigating – say that – let the team know that you are still managing it.  But you want to make folks aware that you have put the mitigation plan into action.  When the probability and severity is high, don’t be shy about communicating these issues.

Alarms Sound!

Impact is approaching.  Again, a judgement call – when do you start jumping up and down, waving flags?  You don’t want to do this for every issue, you will be exhausted, and your stakeholders will not hear you after a while.   The approach on these issues will be unique based on your organization.  During your stakeholder analysis, you should have a clear understanding on the views on what kinds of decisions or issues need to be escalated. You should also gather “how” they would like you to escalate.  Let’s be honest, stakeholders might not look at status report or read project communications unless you specifically ask them.

When you are sounding the alarm, saying “I documented it in the status report” is not sufficient.  This is a time to make phone calls, call special meetings, or sendup flares.   Whatever is needed to get the attention of your stakeholders.

Remember issues can jump directly to Alarms Sound, selecting an escalation path for each issue or risk is the project managers decision.  Start escalating as soon as a critical problem is not receiving adequate attention.

Escalation is a critical communication skill and the ability to effectively escalate is a critical for your project’s success.

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