Upside Down Escalation – how it’s done in Companies of Tomorrow

buildingA few months ago, I wrote an article entitled “The Post S&OP era – Managing in NOW mode” which generated quite a bit of interest. A few comments were left on my Blog at that time, one of which stated the following: “Several elements need to be in place within an organization and culture to implement this process […] and one of the most important being clear accountability to make the necessary decisions at the appropriate levels within an organization.

I was speaking with a friend of mine about the HIVE social model and how communities of multi-skilled individuals can construct solutions to operational problems faster than any one Manager (at whatever level, the point being that it’s just one brain) could hope to accomplish, when this particular quote came to mind. As many others accustomed to working in functional hierarchies, my friend asked a couple of important questions:

– What happens to accountability?
– If employees can’t make a decision and get stuck, what is the process of escalation to higher authorities?

Accountability and Escalation are two common sources of conflict between the command and control structure of Companies of Yesterday and the social model of Companies of Tomorrow. It is a well known attribute of a hierarchy that a management position – Manager, Director, Vice President, etc. – encompasses both greater responsibility than individual contributors and greater accountability (how many times do you hear in meetings the words “so who’s accountable?”). This notion of responsibility and accountability also implies that certain decisions can only be made by a person in a Management position – because responsibility implies authority. Thus the words in the comment I mentioned above: “at the appropriate levels within an organization“.

The HIVE model is a construct that leverages Spontaneous Association of individuals in a community for purposes of Speed. A social model doesn’t produce more accurate results than a traditional hierarchy but it produces them faster, much faster. In many examples I’ve witnessed, conversations in a HIVE run at high speed until they hit a rule that takes the conversation out of the HIVE into another space in the organization working by traditional methods. It is really amazing to see the slowdown caused by these detours into traditional means – delays of days and weeks into a conversation where everything is being sorted out in hours. Speed is the name of the game in communities functioning in NOW mode.

What happens when decisions are not made by regular employees and need to go to Management? They are escalated. But as issues escalate through a hierarchy – and most unexpected events will go up at least a couple of levels – what do you notice typically? – they slow down. The real problem, though, is not that there are less people at the top than at the bottom. The real problem is that these Managers work at their own beat. They are not available at the precise moment that a problem escalates and so the problem goes into a queue. In a large hierarchy, Managers spend a large percentage of their time – or most of their time – in meetings, so their availability is chronically at a premium. For that reason, it is quite common that problems that require management intervention go into a list; and then the list is reviewed at a management meeting. Management meetings don’t happen with great frequency, most occur once a month. See how slow this is?

Upward escalation through Management levels in a hierarchy is, by the standards of Companies of Tomorrow, too slow! In the environment of Companies of Yesterday, when issues escalate and you don’t get a decision for days or weeks, people shrug their shoulders and live with it. In a Company of Tomorrow, that slow pace is unacceptable because it destroys the efficiency of social communities.

So, what do we do?

Well, let’s not destroy the notion that Managers are accountable and some decisions need their intervention. As you may have read in my earlier articles, Leaders exist and Leadership is very pertinent in social models. I for one have no problem with the notion that Leaders have accountability and therefore authority for certain things. Empowering employees to take risks and make decisions doesn’t imply anarchy. As I also wrote, even if companies adopt social models, there have to be standard processes and business rules so that everybody who is improvising does improvise with coherence. Otherwise, how can the offer to the market be predictable? How would you manage customer experience, for instance? So, yes, there have to be standard practices and rules and Leaders have to be responsible for latter, in whatever shape that takes.

And yet, Upward escalation is slow! The answer, then, is to turn the escalation process – not the notion of escalation – upside down. But how does that work? It’s actually supremely simple.

In a HIVE, employees are having conversations in a virtual space (enabled by tools like Yammer, Moxiesoft, Jive or SharePoint). Once in a while, there is the need for somebody in Management to intervene. This is where we turn things upside down – instead of the issue going up to Management, Management has to come down to the issue. In the middle of the conversation, employees ‘poke‘ the appropriate Manager or Managers. In this model, Management has to be on a constant lookout for these ‘pokes’ – that’s what is upside down. Managers are expected to respond to calls coming from these communities, within minutes or hours. They come down to the community and reply to the ‘poke’ by posting a comment in the conversation that’s dealing with the issue that requires their intervention.

Instead of spending their time going from meeting to meeting dealing with all manner of issues, Managers simply ‘hover’ over these HIVE conversations and respond in NOW Mode when they are ‘poked’.

How does ‘poking’ work? Different tools do it differently but one way or another the name of the Manager is mentioned in a conversation or he/she is copied within the conversation. ‘Pokes’ can surface in various ways, including emails into personal mailboxes or as private messages within a social tool. Whatever the method, the ‘poke’ will appear as a message with a link so that the person can go directly into the tool, into the conversation, read the thread and then respond.

This is Upside Down escalation. In NOW mode, the crowd doesn’t go to Management; Management goes to the crowd. It keeps things going fast, it can involve one Manager as easily as many Managers, interventions occur when and where they are needed and Managers will spend more time working with their people than sitting in meetings wasting their time.

Upside down Escalation doesn’t divert from Accountability; it doesn’t invalidate the role of leadership in an organization; and it doesn’t deviate from the need for appropriate controls on certain decisions. It simply enables all of those notions but in a manner that supports rapid action in an environment functioning in NOW mode.


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