Sunday, 5 July 2015

Why, when and how to escalate to your Project owners?

As a Project Manager you may need to escalate to your Project owner (Sponsor or Board) on hopefully rare occasions during execution of the project but at an appropriate time in relation to the situation faced. "Escalate" in this context means notify and ask for assistance / make a decision. This post takes you through the situations when this may be necessary and when/how to go about it.

Project Escalation to Sponsor and Board

Principle of Management by Exception

Firstly I should take you through an important principle in your interaction with your Sponsor or Board. Once you have an agreed Project Definition in place the Sponsor should be able to assume "no news is good news" and that the Project Manager will make contact if this is not the case. This doesn't mean that there is no communication. 
  1. As part of your Stakeholder Analysis you should agree the communication frequency and approach. Personally I like a weekly status report which is available for anyone to read.
  2. I recommend that you establish a schedule of regular formal Project review meetings (i.e. Project Board meetings) with your Project owner. These are used as a formal status check and to make decisions in line with the Project Plan.

When - i.e. Escalation timing - not too soon, not too late

Choosing when to escalate is a judgement call and it isn't an easy decision. Too late and the Project may be left burning money going nowhere. Too soon and the Project Manager may be seen to be a poor manager by not attempting to resolve within the team first. 

To take the analogy in the cartoon, escalating when the ship has actually run aground is far too late!! You should escalate when you are heading firmly for rocks and need to agree a new course or resolve some critical issue with the assistance of your owners.

Why Escalate?

You should escalate if:
  • you are forecasting that the project will be outside the Time, Cost, Quality/Scope or other key success criteria agreed for the Project or Stage of the Project
  • you have a critical Project issue that needs assistance from your project owners
As part of your Monitoring and Control activities you should be regularly forecasting status against the key success criteria agreed with the Project owners via the Project Definition. If, for example, a key "go live" milestone is now forecast outside the agreed target (including any tolerance) or costs are forecast to exceed the agreed budget, you need to escalate. Note that in PRINCE2 this situation is actually called "going into Exception" in line with the principle of management by exception!

Sometimes you have a critical Issue which you need project owner assistance in resolving. You should make every attempt at resolving this within the team using techniques such as Project Punches if required but sometimes you have no choice but to involve the project owners. An example might be a "difficult stakeholder" outside the project team where the Sponsor or Board members have greater influence.

How to escalate?

Escalation is almost always bad news for the project owners and you need to consider the best way to deliver some bad news from a good communication and human standpoint. I recommend picking up the phone.....
Projects - The best way to communicate bad news to your Sponsor

Be very clear about the reason, what your next steps are and what assistance you require. So, in summary the key elements of an example call content might be "Sorry Steve, we have had continued major environmental issues which have delayed our testing phase and at the moment I don't believe we can go live as planned. I am looking at recovery options and will get back to you with these by Thursday for you to make a decision"

You should back up your call with some sort of email report - the Exception Report in PRINCE2 terms. 

Follow-up after the escalation

You should agree the follow-up actions and timetable with your Sponsor. This may mean that you as Project Manager own the action(s) e.g. to produce options on a recovery plan or that the Sponsor or even Senior User owns the action(s) e.g. to get an external stakeholder back on board and supportive of project execution. 

Don't forget that the viability of the Project should be assessed in certain circumstances as an "Exception" may impact the agreed Business Case. This should be discussed with the Sponsor and in the ultimate case, this may cause the Project to be stopped.


As a Project Manager you need to understand the circumstances where you need to escalate to your Sponsor or Governance Board, the owners of the Project. Using the principle of management by exception these are when the agreed Project or Stage success criteria are forecast to be exceeded or a serious Issue needs owner support to resolve. You need to escalate at an appropriate time in advance of Project execution being totally halted and do so in an appropriate human way but ensure that the actions following on from the escalation are agreed.


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