Clean Escalations


Everyone bumps up against conflicting priorities sometimes. Escalating openly and rationally reduces uncertainty, delays, and damaged relationships.

USE THIS PLAY TO...

Unblock teams stuck on decisions, conflicts, or issues.

Establish a rational and collaborative escalation path.

If you're struggling with shared understanding , effective partnerships or decision making on your Health Monitor, running this play might help.

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AND I NEED THIS... WHY?

Sometimes our desire to get along with each other, or just a lack of visibility into another person's situation, makes it difficult to reach quick decisions or challenge decisions we disagree with. You might feel like you're letting your team down by escalating a problem. But not doing so can leave you frustrated, affect the morale and velocity of your team, and may be detrimental to your products and customers. This play aims to establish a culture where people see the value of clean escalation, and resolve issues within 3-5 days (where practical).

Here's an example scenario: 

Two product teams have been working together to roll out a new feature. They have a few open decisions, primarily around information density and documentation use cases. They started talking through options several weeks ago, but haven't made a decision. Why? They don't have enough data.

Then they receive a strong signal from a small but passionate group of users. They make a good-faith effort to align on 3 must-have requirements. They resolve most of the items on the list, with the help of some user testing. But they still have one open item to resolve.

When the team can't agree on this last item, it is escalated to the product manager. The clear next step is to escalate to the VP of Product Management, but they don't need to – all the items are closed within a week.

The team's biggest lesson?  Decisions are hard when data is imperfect, but it's important to make a call and commit fast. Even if there's some dissent. 

WHO SHOULD BE INVOLVED?

Team members driving the issue and their managers, or the nearest decision-maker connected to all parties involved.

Illustration of arrows pointing upward.
User Team
People

suitable for any group size

Measure Clock
Time

3 - 5 days

Difficulty Easy
Difficulty

Hard

Running the play

Expect to spend a few days reaching alignment on what the heart of the matter really is, plus another day or two to get through the actual escalation process. 

Step 1

Acknowledge and align on the problem

Acknowledge there is a disagreement or decision that is stuck. Sometimes it isn't even clear what's happening, and one person/team (Party A) may be unaware of another person/team's (Party B) worries. 

Step 2

Clarify the options

Use plays like the DACI Decision-Making Framework to outline the viable options, including the pros and cons of each. Ask each party to flag their preferred option (these will likely be different).

The goal is for Party A to describe Party B's position in a way Party B feels is accurate, and vice-versa. Use language like "I heard you say...". 

Step 3

Understand the trade-offs

Try to understand the reasoning behind each party's priorities, listing each option's pros and cons if you need to. Differences are often due to team- vs. business-level goals, different target customers, lack of clarity on resources, or misaligned expectations of the ideal customer experience. 

Step 4

Escalate cleanly

Figure out who you'll be escalating to. Often this will be the manager of both/all parties, or it could be an individual in a project leadership role. 

Let the other party know you intend to escalate the issue. E.g., "It looks like we still see things differently. I'd like to escalate to (Party C) – would you like to be part of that conversation?"  

Ask your escalation point-person to analyze the situation from a systemic perspective (which they'll probably do instinctively anyway). If their help is enough to resolve the issue, great. If not, escalate the issue up to the next level. This continues until the issue is resolved – even if you have to go to the CEO. 

Tips for escalators

  • Escalations are a tool to help you resolve issues quickly. If you've made your way through the first 3 steps, you're ready to escalate.
  • If you need more than 3-5 days to gather critical information, that’s ok, but try not to let the alignment period drag on.
  • Always assume good intent from all parties. Escalations are simply a means of ensuring you are optimizing globally rather than locally. Do NOT use them as a weapon. 
Tips for escalation point-persons

  • Leaders can help by de-stigmatizing escalations, encouraging their team members to participate in the process, and coaching them to see its benefits.  

    Leaders may need to ask for more information from the parties who are escalating, which may result in them rethinking their options. That's okay! Sometimes all you need is for someone to ask the right questions, and boom: everyone's perspective shifts.

Nailed it?

Be sure to run a full Health Monitor session or checkpoint with your team to see if you're improving.

Follow-ups

Run a quick retrospective at the end of each escalation. This will help the organization learn how to reduce future escalations.

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