Pernicious Escalation

February 21, 2019

I found this lovely pairing of words in Yves Morieux’s book, Six Simple Rules. He was talking about the corrosive effect that problem escalation can have on teams and management. I’ve seen this before and I know how hard it can be to deal with. On the one hand, as a manager you are there to help and you may feel somewhat flattered when the team comes to you with a problem. On the other hand, as Morieux suggests, an escalation represents a failure of the teams to find a way to arrive at a solution themselves.

First, an escalation often reflects an inability to cooperate on the part of the parties involved. The problem with cooperation is that one group or another usually has to give something up in order for the problem to be successfully resolved. And the thing they are being asked to give up or forego is usually something that they really want. I see this all the time in product management decisions. Two teams are working on features that have been stressed as of the highest importance to the organization. One of the teams falls behind and asks the other for help. It is clear that a choice has to be made. There are three options, Feature A, Feature B, or both (we’ll just leave neither out of the picture for now). One team or the other has to either work extra hard, or drop a key feature. All too often, both teams throw up their hands in frustration and escalate the problem. Why? Because they can’t find a way to solve the problem together.

Second, escalation defeats attempts to empower people and teams. If you give teams the power to make their own decisions, what you have really done is give them the power to make their own compromises. Compromise is hard and my observation is that it’s just human nature to try and avoid it if we can. Of course escalations’s just putting the power back in the manager’s hands. So it defeats the very purpose of pushing decision making power down in the organization – to move the decision closer to the people doing the work.

That brings us to our third and final reason that escalation is harmful. Escalation removes or distances decision making from the source of the problem. This is based on the premise that the best informed people to make a decision are the people who are closest to the problem. The further that you remove someone from the work or the source of the problem, the less likely the decision is to be well informed and useful.

So Morieux recommends that the first thing a manager should do when they receive an escalation request is to lock the two parties in a room and explain that they have to work it out together. They need to learn that the correct answer is some form of cooperation. If they can’t cooperate, then the manager should let them know that cooperation is essential to their performance and as such she/he will keep this in mind when reviews come around. That’s pretty tough…but I like it.


Cooperation vs. Collaboration

February 19, 2019

I was working for a small company that was acquired a few years ago. Soon after the acquisition was finalized, our senior VP invited his new boss to come visit us and meet with some of the leaders of our organization. I was invited to that meeting and introduced as someone who had been leading the agile transformation within our group. I remember shaking this guys hand and thinking he was probably some sort of ex-college football player. He was enormous, sporting a giant smile, and he did what he could to set us all at ease. He exuded confidence and power. After all, he was an exec with a fortune 10 company.

We were all given a chance to ask him questions. I wasn’t feeling very smart at all that day. In fact I was a little intimidated if the truth be told. So I asked what I thought was a pretty lame, if harmless question, “How can you help to promote collaboration between our two groups?” Like I said, weak stuff. His answer was priceless,”Collaboration? Isn’t that what they shot people for in World War II?”

Right then, I knew I was in for a rough ride.

I’ve been reading a book by Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman called “Six Simple Rules: How to Manage Complexity without Getting Complicated.” Yves Morieux first caught my attention in Ted Talk that he gave a few years ago. In that talk he made a compelling case for the over-complexity of today’s large organizations. His argument was that you needed fewer rules and constraints, not more, in order to improve. It turns out, he is speaking from experience. He has tried his approach out with multiple European organizations with some success apparently.

One of the things that he emphasizes early on is the importance of establishing and reinforcing cooperation rather than collaboration. Collaboration is good, he argues, but it’s too limited in scope. It can mean a little as we talked together, but perhaps didn’t actually do much. Cooperation, he argues, implies that at least one side had to give up something, and actually accomplish some work together. So he sees cooperation as a stronger statement than collaboration. Perhaps it is.

Do they shoot people for cooperation?