In some meetings, an issue is discussed, but no solution is reached. These types of problems usually require escalation, which means bringing them to the attention of higher-level managers who have the power to make and approve decisions.
Far too often, an escalation is framed as a complaint, which can put off the higher-ups. Of course, complaining never solves anything. Instead, you need to execute a proper escalation process, which provides fact-based alternatives or suggestions to make it easier for the decision-maker to understand the situation and make quick determinations.
In other cases, escalations fail because there is a general misunderstanding or lack of knowledge about what kind of situations need to be escalated. This results in slow decisions, no decisions, wasted time, demotivation, finger-pointing and other adverse outcomes.
The following steps can be used to determine whether to escalate an issue:
- Identify an “undesirable situation.” Don’t call it a problem because focusing on problems often just brings more of them into reality.
- Evaluate the magnitude of the undesirable situation. How big is the gap between the current situation and the desirable one?
- Evaluate where the undesirable situation will have an impact. Measure, search and analyze facts about the current and potential effects.
- Suggest at least one solution to bridge this gap.
- Determine if you need approval from a higher level of the organization to execute the solution. If yes, escalate. If not, just execute.
Another reason why escalations fail is because there are no suggestions presented. Sometimes people don’t know the right answer or even have an idea about how to solve the situation. Other times, people believe that bringing the undesirable situation or issue to the table is enough. If either of these examples are the case, take the extra step to seek help from someone who has experience and can provide insights and recommendations. Note that seeking help is not the same as escalating. Because you don’t have a suggested solution yet, you don’t know if you need to escalate the situation or not.
Escalations also fail when they are raised in the wrong forums or to the wrong participants. For instance, an operations manager once told me he didn’t believe in escalations because, at the end of the day, nothing was ever done. I asked him to give me an example. He explained that every time he escalated deviations of demand during the monthly sales and operations planning process, no actions were taken to minimize those variations, which were affecting the productivity of the production plant. Turns out, he was raising these escalations in a forum where the owner of the sales plan was not present. Nobody in the room could take the responsibility do to something.
What if the operations manager in this example had analyzed the effects of not receiving enough orders — such as extra costs for unused capacity, increased inventory or the need to lay off operators? And what if he had considered the place in which he was voicing his concerns? He might have been able to make a major impact in his presentation of this escalation to the right people. Then, decision-makers could approve better courses of action.
Prepare a convincing escalation
Once you have followed the above steps and determined that an escalation is needed, you next have to present convincing, relevant information. It is important to present the information in a clear, organized manner so that you hold people’s interest and ensure that the urgency of the situation is understood.
Work through these tips to prepare your relevant information in an organized way:
- Clearly define to yourself the objective. Ask, “What do I expect from this escalation?” If you don’t have a clear understanding of the situation, you will not be able to make it clear for your audience.
- Focus on the impact of the situation. Clearly mark the main effects that result from the undesirable situation. If this information does not catch the eye of the approver, nothing else will.
- Present at least one suggestion. If you need helping coming up with one, ask others for help before escalating. Remember, you cannot ask for approval for a solution you don’t have.
- Be factual. Collect as much information as possible to assess impact and support your suggestions. Remember that an escalation without facts is basically a complaint.
- Be simple and clear. You do not need to present all of the information you find. Less is more. Summarize the most relevant information in a clear way. One page is probably enough to consolidate the data.
- Use graphs and tables. Some people are visual learners, and some like to see numbers. Lean on the support of simple but understandable visualizations when sharing your data.
I’ve seen plenty of ineffective escalations end up in the waste bin. This often means that valid concerns that later resulted in critical challenges could have been avoided. And “I told you so” is never a positive outcome. Instead, help leaders make a decision and solve the undesirable situation. And if you are a leader, encourage your team to bring you well-communicated escalations instead of complaints.
Proper communication and escalation techniques can have a tremendous impact on any organization. Through proper escalation, workers and leaders can effectively address concerns before even worse challenges arise.