Escalation Is Not A Solution… Until It Is
Every once in a while you hear a saying, phrase or piece of advice that just rings in your head and becomes very memorable.
One of those was a friendly piece of advice I got from a colleague when I took on a new role as Managing Director at Endeavor in the UAE. He told me “Escalation is not a solution” then elaborated that they are here to support. He encouraged me to bring up any issues quickly rather than let them escalate out of control.
Although, I had learned this the hard way from a few previous work experiences (it was the inspiration behind the piece I wrote about what dentists can teach us about management), the phrase rang a bell and got me thinking.
I kept thinking about this idea over time and eventually intersected it with another piece of advice I got years ago (insert background music for revelations). The second piece of advice was to “deliver bad news quickly“. The merit of this piece of advice is that when you have bad news that affects others (a boss, shareholders, board members, spouse, etc), you are better off delivering that news quickly than leave it and only have them find out when it’s a much bigger problem.
Both are great advice, but I think there is still something missing. It’s not enough to just inform your colleagues, customers, boss, board members, or others of the bad news. It’s not enough to just ask for help. You are better off complimenting it with action, solution, or some ideas of what to do. The benefits of this is that you are better prepared for the discussion (e.g. you would have thought through some of the options and be able to benefit more from your discussion). As a boss, I learned an early lesson to expect my team to bring possible solutions if they come to me for help on a problem/issue they are grappling with. Many first time managers make the mistake of jumping into solving the problem for their team, which puts the monkey on the boss’ back and robs the employee from an important learning opportunity (see this great article written by William Oncken & Donald Wass: “Who’s Got the Monkey?“).
So lets imagine a problem comes up that affects you and people around you (say your board members). Before you jump to them and say “I have a problem”, here are some simple steps to go through:
- If you feel an emotional reaction (guilt, fear, anger, or denial), it’s normal especially if you care about the outcome. Don’t get stuck; move on and shift your focus towards what you can do. This is fundamental… too many people get stuck here.
- Understand the problem (what’s happening, what’s the damage, is this really a problem or an over-reaction by someone, are others panicking, is it getting worse, is it urgent to intervene immediately or can it wait until you figure out the core issue, etc). The more you understand the problem, the easier it will be for you to find a solution.
- It is better to see the problem for yourself (whoever will be making the decision) rather than relying on someone else to check it and report back. Going to the problem first hand gives you a lot more insight into the problem (the Japanese Kaizen system has a term Genchi Genbutsu meaning “go and see”).
- If the problem is urgent (i.e. needs immediate attention), deal with it right away. Not doing anything in such situations is often worse then doing an imperfect solution.
- Get to the root cause for the problem; look past the symptoms. Toyota pioneered the “5 why’s” approach to get there. For example, if there is a defect in the car door, they ask
- why #1 – a part was not installed correctly,
- why #2 – a bolt was not screwed in all the way,
- why #3 – the machine operator did held the machine for three seconds instead of the five needed,
- why #4 – as a new employee he was not aware of the importance of holding it for five seconds,
- why #5 – it was not explicitly brought up in his training.
Then you have a root cause where you can upgrade the training program to cover this (even so a quick session to update everyone the importance of holding the machine for five seconds) in the training programs. When people don’t spend the time to get to the root cause, they end up spending energy trying to fix a symptom (e.g. firing an operator or adding a
- List options for solving the problem and the pros & cons to each. Avoid a single yes/no option and work on getting at least one or two other viable options. The more you expand your options, the more likely you are to make a better decision (or less likely to make a bad decision if you see the cup half empty).
- Determine the best option you believe to move forward with (based on priorities and pros & cons).
- Communicate the problem, options, and proposed solution to the people who need to know. Decide the best way to communicate it to them (one-on-one meetings, board meeting with material sent ahead of time).
- If this is a decision that needs to be decided on by the board members, then be there to clarify any points the need to make a decision, and let them make it.
- If you are the decision maker, then clarify that the purpose of sharing this information is to get their thoughts an ideas (they might give you other options, other variables to consider, validation on your decision, or an argument for another option).
- Take action on the decision and implement quickly.
One more thing on the first advice “escalation is not a solution“. It is true in the sense that it is better to resolve issues rather than let them grow. It is not true when escalation means taking the decision to the right people (e.g. the board of directors, top management, etc).