Escalations – Part 1


What is an escalation?

When word of a new issue begins circulating on the water cooler circuit and in management meetings, I often, if not always, hear some variation of one of the following comments:

“I don’t think this should be an escalation.”

“This is not an escalation.”

“We shouldn’t treat this as an escalation.”

Each of these has its’ own meaning and intent, but, the truth is, once a problem has been addressed outside the expected solution domain with more resources, which includes capturing the attention of senior management, that problem already is escalated.

These additional resources also include intensification or expansion of visibility and an application of greater effort or investment of time.

So, we can think whatever we like about an issue, but, if we are spreading word of it in our conversations or spending brain cycles thinking about it when we hadn’t been previously, by definition, the issue is escalated.

And, that is not a problem. The real problem is that people often react very strongly to the term “escalation”. Depending on the organization, it could carry such a negative connotation, that just a strategically placed mention of it in a discussion thread is enough to change the course of an entire project. I have seen it happen more times than I can remember in one particular group.

However, stepping back from what it means to escalate an issue by separating the things accompanying it that we have experienced such as commitment of expensive resources and unfavorable attention that disrupts the flow of plans and strained relationships, the term itself is unrelated to any of the negative consequences attributed to it.

An escalation is simply a description of what we can readily observe. It is a previously unresolved issue that has been determined to need something that it hasn’t received or cannot receive in the initial solution domain. This determination led someone to bring additional attention to the issue by asking for a different solution domain.

This could happen for a few reasons. Primarily, however, it always has an initial cause and that is change. Something has changed. This is where the real difficulty is that people attribute to the escalation, itself. Prior to an issue escalating, something changed and when it did, the people who are escalation phobic weren’t prepared and may not have been aware of the change or its significance.

So, to reiterate, as far as the definition of the term “escalation” is concerned, a problem that continues to be addressed using the same resources and as a result continues to be a problem may cause an intensification of consequences, but until the resources are altered to address the problem, it is not an escalation. It’s becoming a potentially more difficult problem to solve, but the problem isn’t escalated until something changes to take the problem outside the solution space.

What does “outside the pool of expected solution resources” mean?

Outside the pool means

“Intensification or expansion of visibility and an application of greater effort or investment of time”

Solution resources means

“Focus, materials, effort and time required to solve a problem.”

So, in a business context, an expected pool of resources for a problem is the pool established for solving problems that might occur during the course of business operations. The resource pool established in a Finance department will be different than the resource pool established by an Engineering department. The product of their business operations are different, as are the problems that result.

Once a problem is defined, if it is not solved as expected it may be escalated. An escalation occurs when someone recognized as having a legitimate claim on the problem indicates that the current pool of resources is inadequate to solve the problem.

This is indicated in a number of ways. Some of these include:

  1. Contacting the solution owner’s manager to request a review of the problem.
  2. Requesting additional engineers or a higher skill level be accessed to help solve the problem
  3. A determination being made that a problem prevents the launch of a product until problem is no longer present.

“A crisis on your part does not necessitate an emergency on mine.”

Ok, we’ve all seen that poster hanging in someone’s cubicle (usually in an IT department) But, it also applies in its own way to escalations.

  1. An escalation requires people before a problem is considered an escalation

A problem can become more problematic without anyone around to notice it, but an escalation describes what the solution pool will be once a person makes an evaluation. So, proverbially speaking, if a problem happens in the woods and no one is around to notice it, can it become an escalation? The answer is “no, it can’t”.

  1. An escalation may exist independent of all parties involved in the problem’s solution.
  2. A problem may exist that is an escalated problem to one group and not so for another.

This means that an escalation on my part does not require one on your part.

A managed escalation in one department, team, or company does not constitute a mandate on the part of any other department, team, or company to recognize the escalation or recognize any requirement for providing escalated services.

In other words, just because you have an escalated problem doesn’t mean that I am required to give you my resources to help solve that problem unless it’s agreed that an escalation on your part necessitates an escalation be acknowledged on mine.

And here is where much unnecessary relationship trouble often begins: assuming otherwise.

The solution as to how agreements like this can be made is not difficult. It’s done through service level agreements (SLAs) and executive mandates.

A company could, for example, make a blanket policy that states when Department XYZ is managing an escalation any organization that is determined to be a necessary resource pool to solve that problem must provide preemptive priority to the escalated problem until de-escalated.

This works when I have to acknowledge your escalations and you have to acknowledge mine. It’s not going to work if it only runs one direction. The typical behavior I’ve observed is that an escalation isn’t acknowledged outside the escalation origin until forced by an escalation created in another organization when senior management and above are brought in to review. SLAs are very effective in addressing this before it creates “escalation phobia”.

Escalations – Part 2 to follow.

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