Who does not know it? Escalations in everyday work, projects and companies. Escalation means “calling up a higher hierarchy level to bring about a decision when the situation cannot be dealt with with one’s own authority. Escalation is the counterpart to delegation. ”(Source Project magazine )

Escalation in colloquial language

In common parlance, escalation has a negative connotation and means that a conflict or problem has to be resolved by management and this leads to unrest and stress in the project.

I also had a difficult project myself in my time as a consultant. I experienced 2-4 escalations every day. It was a difficult time and not only the sickness rate of my employees was very high, but also very low motivation and work progress.

Escalation as a formal process

Overall, escalation can also be a formal process be. Classic organizations dictate that every level has everyone Should make decisions for which she is able. There is a decision outside of the budget or the decision-making framework so the team asks completely neutral the upper management to a decision.

Escalation in traditional organization: handing over responsibility

In a classic organization, an escalation often means that a decision is no longer in the area of responsibility of the team or that there is a conflict with another specialist department. Teams in traditional organizations often have very little leeway and have to escalate a lot.

The advantage is that as an employee you can give up responsibility and use the famous sentences: “I can’t decide that” or “I’m not paid enough for the problem” or “The management has to decide that”. What is the consequence of these sentences: On the one hand, managers are heavily involved in decisions and projects are slowed down as a result.

When I was the interior manager of a customer, I was only busy making decisions in escalations. I would have needed almost 2 hours per escalation to really empathize and another 2 hours to decide. However, I had to resolve almost 30 escalations per day, otherwise projects would be stopped. I usually managed 5-8.

What was the problem? Often I did not know the exact project, the people, the background or the technology. So I could often have tossed a coin as the alternatives had both advantages and disadvantages and I couldn’t answer them quickly. After all, the team couldn’t solve it themselves in 1 week, how am I supposed to solve it in 1 hour?

On the other hand, I have seen employees, especially project managers, who often escalate, make themselves unpopular. Clearly, a meaningful escalation draws respect from management and can conducive to career But it is often the case that project managers are promoted with few constructive escalations. Project managers with many escalations are usually put on the sidelines by management as “complainers” or “unable to make a decision”.

Escalation in the agile organization: personal responsibility and self-organization

In agile organizations there are also escalations, however, all levels work independently without the influence of the higher level, as long as the agreed result is within the set framework agreements for e.g. time and costs. The management controls in ways how OKRS compliance with these target agreements.

The advantage is that projects are faster and managers are not overwhelmed with thousands of decisions. I also often experience that escalations can usually be resolved by the teams and thus also ensure calm in the team.

Let’s be honest: management attention makes each of us nervous. The advantage of the higher level of self-organization is that managers only devote themselves to the really important escalations and little things remain with the team.

Tips on escalation

First of all: there is no escalation-free life, even with agility! Even with models such as Scrum of Scrums cross-team tasks are escalated in a Scrum of Scrums Teams. Nevertheless, I would like to give some final tips for both classic and agile organizations.

3 tips for employees

  • Do not escalate the actual work but rather solutions to make the problem appear constructive to management.
  • Think carefully about whether you really have to escalate and point out to the other party that no one will be able to help if it escalates.
  • You don’t have to have an answer for everything. Express the wish for a little time to think about it, as the decision may soon no longer be important.

3 tips for managers

  • Play back smaller escalations for which the employees are more likely to agree and encourage them to act independently.
  • Establish a clear escalation process (e.g. management meeting) or an escalation team. These can evaluate and prioritize escalations and, if necessary, provide support at the working level.
  • Keep a cool head even in emotional escalations. Ask everyone involved to suggest constructive solutions. Make it clear that concessions do not mean losing face.

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I blog about the influence of digitalization on our working world. For this purpose, I provide content from science in a practical way and show helpful tips from my everyday professional life. I am an executive in an SME and I wrote my doctoral thesis at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg at the Chair of IT Management.

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