Who doesn’t know? Escalations in everyday work, projects and companies. Escalation means “calling a higher hierarchy level to make a decision when the situation cannot be satisproved with its own powers. Escalation is the equivalent of delegation.” (Source project magazine)

Escalation in colloquial language

In common parlance, escalation is negative and means that a conflict or problem must be resolved by management, causing unrest and stress in the project.

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

Escalation as a formal process

Overall, an escalation can also be a formal process Be. Classical organisations require that each level to make decisions to which it is empowered. If a decision is made, outside the budget or decision-making framework, the team asks for neutral the senior management around a decision.

Escalation in the classical organisation: surrendering responsibility

In a classic organization, escalation often means that a decision is no longer a team responsibility or a conflict with another department. Teams in traditional organizations often have very little room for manoeuvre and have to escalate a lot.

The advantage is that as an employee you can give up responsibility and use the famous phrases: “I can’t decide this” or “I’m underpaid for the problem” or “That’s up to the management to decide”. 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 an interiems manager with a client, I was only busy deciding in escalations. I would have needed just under 2h per escalation to really put myself in and 2h to decide again. However, I had to solve almost 30 escalations per day, otherwise projects would be stopped. I usually made it 5-8.

What was the problem? I was often unaware of the exact project, the people or the background or technology. So I could have often tossed a coin, because the alternatives had both advantages and disadvantages and I couldn’t answer them quickly. After all, the team itself couldn’t solve it in 1 week, so how can I solve it in 1 hour?

On the other hand, I have seen that employees especially make project managers, who often escalate, unpopular. Clearly, a meaningful escalation attracts the respect of management and can be conducive to careers, but it is often the case that project managers are promoted with little constructive escalation. Project managers with many escalations are usually pushed onto the siding as “jammers” or “incapable of deciding something” in the management.

Escalation in agile organisation: personal responsibility and self-organization

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

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 solved by the teams and thus also provide peace of mind in the team.

Let’s face it: Management attention makes each of us nervous. The advantage of the higher self-organization is that managers only dedicate themselves to the really important escalations and stick to the team.

Tips for escalation

First of all, there is no escalation-free life even with agility! Models such as Scrum of Scrums also escalate cross-team tasks in a scrum of scrum scrums. Nevertheless, I would like to give some final tips for both traditional and agile organizations.

3 tips for employees

  • Escalate solutions rather than the actual work, but solutions to make the problem appear constructively in management.
  • Think carefully about whether you really need to escalate and point out to the other person that no one is helped in an escalation.
  • You don’t have to have an answer to everything. Express the desire for a little period of time for thought, as the decision may soon be no longer important.

3 Tips for Managers

  • Play minor escalations, for which the employees are better agreed, and encourage the employees to act on their own responsibility.
  • Establish a clear escalation process (e.g. management meeting) or an escalation team. These can evaluate and prioritize escalations and, if necessary, support them at the work level.
  • Keep a cool head even in emotional escalations. Ask all parties involved for constructive solutions. Make it clear that concessions are not a loss of face.

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I blog about the impact of digitalization on our working environment. For this purpose, I present content from science in a practical way and show helpful tips from my everyday work. I am a manager in an SME myself and I wrote my doctoral thesis at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg at the chair of IT Management.