Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Escalation: The No-Man’s Land full of Assumptive Landmines

Generally when someone hears that you are planning to escalate an issue, they assume that someone is in trouble. In many cases, they assume they, themselves are being put on the spot. This generates a lot of unpleasantness, to say the least.

In future blog posts I’ll talk about communicating up to management, but escalations are a tad different. They should be used as an informational medium, and not a tool for punishing people. I’m not above punishing people—oftentimes a mature team will do it for you—but you should never punish publicly or without cause. Whenever you do "punish" you should do so without relish and with all your facts in a row. Because of their association with punishment, escalations must therefore also be handled carefully.

Step 1: Don’t get mad or frustrated. Very easy to say, somewhat hard to do. Think about it this way: a person may not be able to help you because its physically impossible, they have higher priorities, they are a dingbat, they are recovering from deep grief, the alignment of the stars, etc. Never assume someone is deliberately annoying you. In the grand scheme of things, you (probably) don’t spend a ton of time plotting the unhappiness of your co-workers…you should therefore leave the benefit-of-the-doubt that they are not plotting against you. If you are spending time plotting the downfall of your co-workers, you might either a) look into another job, b) get a hobby and/or c) develop a hearty evil laugh.

Step 2: Before you escalate, ask what you can do that might help you get what you need to get done…basically, follow the tenets of altruism and bribery as listed in previous blog entries. You can always trade work for work. A lot of the time you may receive a “no” because they perceive themselves helping you as to preventing them from reaching their goals. But, if you find a way to help them reach their goals (get their stuff done), then they are likely to reconsider helping you (and you therefore wouldn’t need to escalate). A good example that comes to mind is that you need to borrow a technical expert from another team, and they are struggling with an issue your tech expert could help with. Trade hours between the two, and everyone is happy.

Step 3: Once you’ve both realized that you can’t move further without an escalation, tell them that you need to escalate. The words you choose will frame your future relationship of trust—or lack thereof—with this person. So choose carefully. You don’t want to say “Since you can’t help me, I’m going to your boss.” What you want to say is something like “It’s ok if you cannot help me in this endeavor. I am going to talk to both our bosses, let them know I’m blocked, and see if either can get us unblocked.” You don’t have to say these exact words. You should obviously use your own. But talking about talking to your own boss and this person’s takes the sting out of the escalation, and including them with words like “us,” make them less likely to see what you’re doing with cynicism or malicious intent. A lot of people DO assume malicious intent, especially where there isn’t any, so this step really helps manage that concern. Of course, if you are being malicious, do what you will (you will anyway).

Step 4: Talk to your boss, then their boss. In that order.

Step 5: After talking to their boss, write down what was said and send it out to everyone—your boss, their boss, and them.

Step 6: Report back where you are to the person who requested it. Either you’ll have permission to use that person’s time now or in the future, or you can show that you tried, are blocked, and leave the requestor with other options.

I have often said, and will probably bore you with it again: I will not bend time and space for people. If I could do that, I would totally be on an island somewhere right now (see previous posts on this topic) AND I'd be diving the Great Barrier Reef AND I'd be blogging about all of it at the same time..."MaiTai tasty, Great White Shark huge and, thankfully, distant."

My job is to introduce reality to the situation where I work (aside: Firefox doesn't know the correct spelling of MaiTai, and neither do I, sorry). People are not always going to be happy about reality, but reality will actually produce them results in the log run, and well, as a manager (and a human, I like to think), we're in it for the long run (to totally mix my metaphors).

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