You have probably been there. I know I have been. You are stuck on a project, and you have a blocker that can't be removed. What to do, what to do. For the most part, knowing if you need to escalate something is easy. Check the stress monitor on our smartwatch.
What is more challenging is know knowing how to escalate an issue professionally. If you are reading this article and are ready to escalate, skip to the Escalation section below. For the rest of us, let's start from the beginning.
First things first, if we are starting a large project with any dependencies, we should expect to escalate an issue at some point. In many cases, these can be raised and unblocked through your influence, but there will be times when you have to include bosses. So we should expect these escalations, and we accept it as regular part of our "Knowledge Work."
Before we jump into the nuts and bolts of the "Pre Escalation," let's look at what we want at the end of the project. It is essential to know how we want to be viewed when the project is over. This view prevents us from making decisions based on fear, worry, or stress. Your list of how you want to be viewed after the escalation can be as unique as you are, but mine are Respected, Trusted, and Colaborative. So do your best to view the escalation process through this long-term lens.
The Pre Escalation Checklist
- Find out what can change and what can't. For example, timelines or service levels can change, but systems requiring development are often legitimate blockers.
- Get to know the process on the other side. There is often assumed rigidity in the process. Processes might be more flexible than systems or the opposite might be true
- Find as many limitations as possible because the limitations will be communicated when the issue is escalated. Also limitations are where the solution finds its way
- Communicate these limitation as clearly as possible with the team or client that you plan to escalate.
- Understand your requirements and what you or your team need. In other words, you need to know what can be done vs. what can't be.
- Schedule working meetings. My favorite is a 15-minute working meeting 3 to 5 times a week. If you do this, make sure you keep it to 15 minutes. It works like magic for uncovering limitations and paths through them.
- If you sense an escalation coming, communicate the escalation with your boss and the blocker (the team or client). This communication is vital because it lets everyone know it is a group effort.
- In the "Pre Escalation Communication," communicate what you are asking for and why. If possible, provide a day between the "Pre Escalation" communication (usually an IM message) and the "Formal Esalation" (an email with all the bosses.
- Let the blocker know that you will be sending an email to their boss and your boss so they can make the decision. Take the emotions out of it and let them know you understand they have their marching orders. Since it is out of both of of your hands you are going to let the bosses figure it out.
This week I talked with a team leader who said it is prevalent for him to be added client escalation calls without knowing any context beforehand. No one likes surprises, and these calls waste more time because there isn't any time to prepare for the escalation call.
Most of the time we have to escalate because we don't have the authority to fix their problem or say no. Keep in mind escalation is a reality of our job and not something we should feel make us feel bad. If we had the authority to allocate resources or say "No," we wouldn't have to escalate.
- Send Pre Escalation communication to your boss and the blocker. Let them know when you plan on escalating. No one likes surprises. Provide a day or two if it is possible.
- Do the best you can to keep emotions out of it and keep it professional. Let the blocker know that you understand they can't say yes, and they have their priorities which is why you are escalating the issue.
- Know what you need. It is essential to communicate what you or your team needs to become unblocked. This can be getting resources, moving timelines, or saying "No"
- Know what the blocker needs and include that in any communication. If you include both sides of the issue, you will gain respect and make the issue less personal. Empathy might be a business superpower, and now is the perfect time to use it.
- Draft an email. Let it set. Reread it, then send it.
- Send a follow-up meeting request with the goal of having a decision or next step determined. If the right people with authority are in the room, you should have a path forward even though it might not be the path you expected.
- Communicate any updates to everyone involved. Make sure you level-set any new expectations.
Ultimately if you had to escalate an issue, you didn't have the authority or influence required to solve the issue. Your responsibility was to provide all the information needed to the person who has the authority to decide. Once the person of authority has made the decision, you can adjust to the plan.
If emotions run high during the process, make sure you do a post mortem of the project or escalation. I recently screwed up my last post mortem, and a peer pointed it out. I was running the post mortem, and I was too close to the issue, so I dominated the conversation and didn't let my team speak as much as they should. I ended up protecting my team but limited the productivity of the conversation.
I was too close to the problem. When I asked my peer what he thought, he quickly exposed my blindspot and said it would have been more productive if a neutral party had led the meeting. He was right. So do a post mortem and have a neutral third party run the discussion.
Post Mortem Checklist
- Focus on how the process broke down.
- Identify the bad.
- Find the good.
- Keep it professional and NOT personal.
- Indentify what should happen next time.
The key to the post mortem is to learn. It is also a time to reflect and see if your escalation has gone full circle. Did you get what you wanted at the beginning of the process? If you are Respected, Trusted, Clear, and relieved, your escalation was successful even if you didn't get what you expected.