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.