Crisis Management 1.02 – Project Manager’s Escalation

In the previous article, we discussed how to handle a situation where customer dissatisfaction is triggering the crisis, yet there is one more common scenario I would like to cover, and that is Project Manager’s escalation of the crisis.

Here, I will focus on the case where the issues are not “people related” since team issues require an entirely different approach, so I will leave that for the last part of the Crisis Management series.

Like in the previous case, I will assume that you tried to keep the situation under control and took all actions necessary to avoid the crisis.

Project Manager’s Escalation

Not every emergency is defined by the customer (dis)satisfaction. Sometimes, we can have happy customers and still be facing a risk of project failure. Whenever a Project Manager identifies a potential or active issue, and they think they won’t be able to contain it within the project tolerance, they should escalate it to the Steering Committee (Project Board). The nature of the issue has little influence on how we should proceed to define the course of action. The approach is similar as for the Customer Crisis, with some slight changes that can make the difference.

Playing Cassandra

When we have happy customers, users, stakeholders, we may find ourselves delivering the bad news that most don’t believe, just like the Greek prophetess Cassandra.

It may be anything, from unforeseen costs to problems with providing the expected quality and maintaining a critical deadline. Regardless of what caused the crisis, at a certain point, you will be the only one to realise the consequences that are lying ahead if no actions are taken.

Project Manager’s escalationProviding a clear vision that’s also easy to understand is often a challenge. Stakeholders’ knowledge may be incomplete, or to be more precise – not up to date, due to the fast-paced business environment. This is why it can come as a shock when a Project Manager announces a crisis.

To pull off delivering the (unexpected) bad news, you must be factual. No gut feeling or intuition are acceptable at this stage unless you don’t want to be just considered the kill-joy or the prophet of doom! Present your argumentation in a clear, relatable way in order to appeal to the Steering Committee.

Can the Project Manager Open the Crisis?

At this stage, you must convince the Board to put the project in Crisis mode. In fact, the Project Manager cannot decide to open a crisis on their own. This is a Board decision.

In the case of Customers escalation, there is no discussion about it – the crisis is declared immediately, the opening is just a formality. The situation is quite different with Project Manager’s escalation.

In my professional life, I’ve seen such requests denied more than once, for various reasons. In general, there may be a request to handle the situation while maintaining the regular project activity and avoid an escalation. While in a couple of cases it worked, most of the time it was just delaying the inevitable crisis.

The best approach is to talk to the actors separately and try to find a few sponsors that understand the stakes at hold. A good report describing all the risks at hand is fundamental: people may disregard oral warning but would have to consider written ones!

(see the Prepare your case and Prepare the alternatives sections from the previous post)

How Did We End up Here?

Sooner or later you will have to answer this question. In the end, you are in the driver’s seat. Funny thing is that you may end up justifying yourself more than in those cases where the crisis is due to external factors.

Don’t fall into a defensive position. At this stage, the primary objective is to handle the issues at hand. If you have to take the blame for your team’s actions – do it. If something has been overlooked in the analysis, pin down the problem without finger pointing.

Keep in mind that your goal is to go into crisis mode. Once you’re there, and the crisis is contained, you may go back and figure out what caused the problem. The best moment to do so is usually the closure of the crisis.


communicationOnce you have convinced the stakeholders, you still have another, final, delicate point to address before getting to work: breaking the news to your team. Apart from the group of stakeholders, everyone is still convinced that everything is going according to plan and it will fall upon you to let them know otherwise. This doesn’t mean you should give them the same level of information that you’ve provided to the Board, but carefully guide them through all the aspects that may affect them.

Remember that your work is affecting others and that the end of a project is just the beginning for the users. Be mindful of the impact that a crisis can have on people around you.

Read: Opening Moves of Crisis Management Read: The Opening Moves of a Crisis: Team Crisis



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