One day a Product Manager mentioned they had been trying to get something done for several weeks, and I asked how I could help. They said, “Oh, I don’t want to escalate. We will try harder to get aligned.” I asked why they felt this way, and they replied, “We should be able to work this out without needing you to get involved.”

I know that feeling well. There have been times I didn’t want to get someone else involved because it would seem like I was failing to do my job, but I’ve realized that there are also times when escalating quickly and getting a resolution was way better than a prolonged struggle.

We have a bottoms-up culture, so often asking for help from someone more senior feels wrong or bad. But I have seen teams struggle and fight for weeks or even months and not get to an outcome. And everyone is worse off as a result.

Compromise sometimes results in the worst outcome

Imagine you and your spouse are choosing between traveling to New York City and San Francisco for vacation. Each has pros and cons. But let’s say you compromise to go halfway in between. You would be spending your holiday in Kearney, Nebraska. While I’m sure it is a fine town of 33K people, I’m also sure that both of you would be better off picking one of the original destinations.

Often the best outcome between two product choices is not halfway in between. In fact, that is often the worst outcome. Most products cannot be split in half and allocated since they are end-to-end experiences. Two halves often do not equal a whole, and major compromises serves no one well.

There are more degrees of freedom than you can see.

What if this holiday you went along with your spouse and vacationed in New York, and next year you got to choose where you went? Both of you increased the degrees of freedom and thus could both get what you want, but on a different timeframe.

Teams often have different priorities, and sometimes these are in conflict with one another. But often there are different ways to solve the problem than two individual teams can see. For example, trading off helping another product group accelerate their efforts in one area while asking for more support in another can often work out. Or serializing what we test and ship.

Sometimes there are more options than it first appears, but only if you can see the overall tradeoffs.

Disagree and commit means the start of moving forward.

Rather than continue to fight and create hard feelings, once the decision is made you can move forward together. Spending an extra month planning a great trip to New York will mean a much better trip than another month discussing where to go.

Questions to ask yourself if you are not sure whether to escalate:

  • Will the compromise we make hurt the product or the people using it?
  • Do we need more context or visibility to make this decision?
  • Am I holding back because I’m afraid we will “lose” or look like I’m not able to do my job?

If the answer is “yes” to any or all of these questions, consider escalating as a viable path forward.

Constructive escalations

  • Ask specifically for what you need help on and why
  • Fairly (and jointly if you are able) lay out the options along with the pros and cons and your recommendation
  • Accept the outcome of the escalation either way

Escalations are a healthy part of partnering with teams with different goals. Clarity on prioritization and tradeoffs means that you are able to move forward with a clear path either way. It also means that we spend less time arguing and more time building products to connect the world.