Management Skill Series – Escalations

This is the second in a series of posts discussing management skills. If you haven’t already, please refer to the introduction first.

A very common situation is that when an employee needs to tell his manager that something unpredictable had happened and a decision needs to be made regarding the next course of action. These intersections are at the core of what will define your product or service quality. Ironically, this is also the most overlooked part of daily office communication.

“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” – Murphy’s Law

Instinctively, an employee will escalate by saying what went wrong in an attempt to offload responsibility and decision-making to their superior. Instinctively, the manager will attempt to take over. In a best-case scenario the manager will come up with a solution and tell their team member what to do. In the worst-case scenario, no decision will be made and the path will be guided by constraints of time.

The purpose of escalations

Contrary to popular belief, the reason we escalate should not be to offload. While managers tend to have more experience and system-wide knowledge, the person escalating will usually have a more intimate relationship with the cause of escalation. The knowledge that the person escalating has will be very important when taking a good decision on what should be done.

The elements of a proper escalation

It is the responsibility of the sender and not the recipient to make sure his message was delivered and understood. In most cases this means escalating face to face is the best way to go.

Escalations are constructed from 3 basic elements. Cause, Effect, and Alternatives.

The Cause is a description of what happened, or what is the reason for escalation. This could be an employee who is unexpectedly sick, a server crashing, unexpected budget requirements or miscalculated deadlines.

The Effect is the foreseen damage if nothing special is done to handle the situation. With the above examples, this could mean support delays, service outage or data loss, budget cuts or version delays. The effect should always be described in full and is crucial to include even when you think it is obvious. This allows everyone involved to focus on preventing this said damage, and will also hand off the responsibility of damage to your manager when picking an alternative.

Alternatives are options. There can be one or many, but you should make a strong effort to include a couple. They are the different paths that can be taken which will eliminate or reduce the damage done. When presenting each alternative you must include its cost and effect.

“Since last-minute features were added to this version we cannot release the next version in the deadline that we previously selected. We could publish these as a secondary version later, we could skip QA approval for some of the tests but it could mean a buggy version, or we could draw 2 people and a couple of servers from R&D for a couple of weeks if we want to get it done without delay.”

The good thing that occurs when all three elements are included in an escalation is that it can usually be resolved on the spot. The manager should know what they can or can’t afford – but most importantly you will not be offloading everything and have them “get back to you.” You have effectively suggested the resolution, you’re still responsible for its success, and you will not be held accountable in such a case when your manager chooses to suffer the Effect. This is how even when you don’t have the authority to push deadlines or budgets you can maintain full authority over your field of expertise.

The benefits of teaching proper escalation to team members

Escalations will come up between you and your manager, but also happen daily between team members and team leads. There is tremendous benefit for a team lead who teaches proper escalation methods to their team. Beside the load it reduces on the team lead, it allows members room to grown and own their responsibilities. It allows the entire team to speak the same language and know what to expect from each other, and each team member’s specialization to shine through when you escalate situations that were brought to you. Many management skills which will be covered here are similar in that regard – a team lead manages both the team and himself. A team member also needs to manage himself. I highly recommend that when you choose to apply a method to yourself that you share this with your manager and team – establishing a common language is important.

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