8 Best Practices for Incident Management
System outages and downtime are inevitable. They can cost you money, regulatory fines, customer loyalty and eventually undermine the reputation of the company. Major disruptions can even make it onto front-page news.
Take this example.
It was back in 2020. Over a 12-hour massive outage resulted in more than 23,000 failed 911 calls… There was a failure in part of T-Mobile’s network, which was made worse by routing and software errors. Even the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) got involved. Its report showed that T-Mobile USA “did not follow established network reliability best practices” that could have potentially prevented or mitigated the disruption. This failure cost the company $19.5 million!
Hopefully, the last incident you encountered didn’t cost you a fortune and was fixed without any significant impact on your business. But here is the thing: to thrive in an increasingly challenging world, businesses need to acknowledge that incident management is one of the most critical processes in an organization.
Regardless of size, shape, location, or industry, each company needs to have a consistent approach to incident management. To guide your organization towards healthier practices means detecting, tracking, analyzing, and reporting incidents in a timely and proactive manner.
Customers are more demanding and more vocal than ever. They expect services and applications to be available 24/7. To make matters worse, customers’ patience has become too limited (they want you to find a solution now!). In the midst of chaos, agility and speed become paramount to gaining a strategic advantage in the marketplace.
No matter the complexity level of your internal systems, you can improve the quality of the service you offer and reduce the harmful downtime if you invest time and effort in cultivating incident management best practices at your organization.
Let’s start with defining the terms.
What is an incident?
An incident is an unplanned event that threatens to interrupt or causes an interruption in a service by inhibiting the functionality of the service or reducing its quality. A few examples can be: a website going down, degrading network quality, running out of disk space, a feature in the application not working, and more.
Outages are likely to happen because of software and hardware failures or human errors; that’s why incidents can come from anywhere: an employee, a customer, the operations system…
If an incident is a major one, it requires an emergency response and usually becomes a core component of larger IT frameworks.
What is incident management?
Incident management is the process of detecting, examining, resolving, and analyzing service interruptions and outages. It aims to ensure service restoration – as quickly and efficiently as possible with minimal impact on the business. It’s the primary responsibility of DevOps, IT operations, and desk service teams to oversee the process of incident management. Depending on a company’s internal policies and procedures, incident management can also be viewed as a component of IT service management (ITSM).
Incident vs. problem
An incident is an unplanned disruption to a service or reduction in its quality, whereas a problem is the root cause of the incident. In other words, we talk about an incident when we want to explain what happened to a service. The moment we explore why an incident occured, we refer to the problem.
Incident management vs. incident response
Incident management is the broader concept or process of incident communication and resolution, while incident response deals with handling a single incident. This means that incident response is only one aspect of incident management.
5 steps of the incident management process
To understand what incident management best practices entail, it’s essential to have a clear roadmap of the steps involved in this process. Before we dive in, consider this: there is no one size fits all solution when choosing the incident management process for your company. This is one of the primary reasons you’ll see various approaches across different companies.
It’s high time to walk you through the stages of the incident management lifecycle:
Step 1: Detect
When an incident strikes, it should be detected and classified as quickly as possible. At this stage, you identify who should be involved in the resolution of the incident, which incidents require special handling, and which ones should be taken over by the regular staff. If you do a great job at detecting an incident, the following steps are easier to go through. Remember, the teams that start strong are more likely to finish strong.
Step 2: Record
After being detected, the incidents are logged and recorded. Who reports the incident, when it’s reported, what exactly isn’t working – these are, as a rule, mandatory fields to be filled in. All details are documented, despite the severity level of the incident. Afterward, you assign an ID number to the incident for tracking, processing, and reporting purposes.
A pro tip before we move on: keep all of the information in one place. This enables to speed up communication, prevent the opening of duplicate tickets, and steer clear of overloading the system.
Step 3: Respond
When the incident is detected, logged in, and classified, it’s time to respond to it.
If nothing major occurs, the incident is routinely handled by the technical support and DevOps teams. If not, you need to have straightforward internal communication for effective incident management.
You communicate with all impacted stakeholders and make sure they’re informed about the incident. If you aren’t quick enough on this, your customers will surely go a step ahead and flood the social media or the call center with their anger, resentment, and disappointment. “Arghh! It’s not working!”, “Damn, I can’t get my work done!” you’ll hear them saying.
During the responding stage, miscommunication can lead to bias and nervousness. Meetings to keep everything on track, timely notifications, announcements, and updates (usually handled by the communications team) are crucial.
Escalation is another essential phase in incident management. This is when a team member can’t resolve an incident and asks for more specialized help. Needless to say, the roles and responsibilities should be clearly identified; when an incident occurs, everyone should know who the go-to person is to ensure the right level of organization in your response.
Step 4: Resolve and close
With the previous steps performed and a satisfactory resolution found, it’s time to pass the incident back to the service desk. Only the service desk is entitled to close incidents. There is a simple reason for this: your team should check with the reporter and get confirmation that the resolution is satisfactory and can now be closed.
Step 5: Collect and analyze reports
Service improvement! That’s the buzzword we hear everywhere and every time.
So how do you improve your services? Right! You collect data on the reported incidents and do a thorough analysis to make sure the incident management process is complete.
Post-incident reports allow for a valuable retrospective review. But remember that these reports should be detailed, insightful, and pursue a major end goal: help the team prevent future incidents.
Incident management best practices or what makes an incident well-managed?
Although copying and pasting a templated approach from another business will hardly lead to stellar results, it’s always a smart idea to look into the best practices. Learning, refining, and adjusting – that’s how you take the incidence management process to the next level. Let’s see how companies respond when the message hits: “We have an incident!”
1. Detect before it occurs
You can, of course, go ahead and get yourself busy with putting out fires day after day, week after week…
But there is a better solution – to have a truly effective system in place for incident management. Through regular software updates, event monitoring, and incident response plans, you understand where the incident appeared, why it occurred, and how. Identifying and fixing root causes is your shortcut to preventing them from happening again.
2. Prioritize correctly
How many customers are affected? Is this a security issue? Do we have any data loss? To prioritize means to identify the various implications of an incident on various aspects of your business: finances, customer service, operations, security, etc.
Urgency, impact, and severity are the top criteria according to which you should prioritize the incidents. Doing this right is important to save precious time, resources and nerves. To streamline the process, you can set up a priority matrix and make sure all team members know how to use it.
Neat and logical categories should be outlined to ease the classification and prioritization of every incident. It’s recommended to use the option “Other” as little as possible. By the way, this step will also be helpful when it’s time for analyzing data and revealing patterns.
3. Distribute tasks smartly
The best incident response teams, especially in times of major incidents, act quickly, make decisions under pressure, and all of this – without risking the overall incident management process. One of the secrets of such success is that the skills of the team members are mapped and clearly defined to help assign roles correctly. Best practices hint that every team member has their own set of responsibilities, and the separation of tasks is well-informed. Load is distributed evenly and smartly.
If needed, have an in-house staff to handle incidents on a regular basis, and independent contractors who can step in to help you with expert advice. Make sure that all team members follow the same troubleshooting procedures to avoid miscommunication.
Incident management best practices also help to prevent employee burnout by advocating for a clear and specific handoff between teams. When internal communication is effective, teams can quickly replace each other if the incident requires a longer time to be resolved. This means the business doesn’t waste time coordinating and communicating with all parties involved.
The incident manager, service desk folks, ops team, system and network admins, communications team – everyone should be trained and prepared to respond to incidents promptly and with high efficiency.
4. Automate when possible
Repetitive tasks should be spotted and automated. Rely on automation to minimize human error and to take care of your team. Waking up people in the middle of the night or forcing them into working long, long hours can lead to… The consequences are well-known: burnout, decreased productivity, loss of motivation. Therefore, employee-centered businesses reduce the toll on people by integrating automation tools into the incident management process.
You should also consider having templated first communications ready when it comes to communications. Your first response to the detected incident should be quick and efficient so that you can focus on resolving the issue straight ahead.
By the way, after you’ve automated one aspect in your incident management process, ask yourself: “What else can be automated?” And automate the next bit of incident management.
5. Look beyond one-time incidents
An incident, especially a major one, can give a useful hint at what should be updated or refined on an organizational level. So, incidents are a great opportunity to channel some of the resentment towards preventative actions. It is, therefore, recommended to link incidents to ITIL and ITSM processes.
6. Report blamelessly
Efficiency is about teamwork and trust. In a workplace culture, where blaming one another is a norm, there’s little chance to handle incident management successfully.
High-performing teams focus on the process of incident management rather than the people involved. Report in a way that’s blameless. A culture of camaraderie and integrity should be a top priority. Help your team understand that you all walk towards the same destination and aim for a win-win approach.
Yes, incidents can be utterly frustrating, but the best teams take them as opportunities to build rapport within the team as well as with their customers.
7. Provide top-notch training
Today, there is one thing the IT and management fields have no shortage of – certification programs. Use them! Don’t wait till an employee reports about a skill gap. Identify those blind spots proactively and offer the best possible training in the field. The certification courses will help the team to deliver high-quality services, see the bigger picture, and align their day-to-day work to the organizational strategy.
Explore if you can refocus somebody’s expertise to benefit your business. Keep an eye on the latest tools and see if more sophisticated CI/CD tools (continuous integration and continuous delivery/deployment tools) can be used in the incident management process and guide your employees towards relevant training programs.
Having the right personnel on board is a blessing. But to ensure your team members stay competent, you need to invest in them.
8. Look ahead
The IT industry will not stop evolving. Businesses are under pressure to make frequent and significant changes in their processes and procedures. Customers are not going to be any less demanding. A core piece of many businesses, incident management is going to be a continuous focus.
It’s important to constantly review what’s new in your field of operation and what the future holds for incident management. One thing is for certain – the smarter, safer, more secure and more reliable companies are going to win the competition. That’s why part of the incident management best practices is embracing new tech and leaning towards a more proactive and preventative approach to incident management.
Let’s face it. Incidents are going to happen. Systems are going to fail. It’s all about how we handle the situation next time an outage strikes. And we’re going to witness a huge difference between organizations that manage incidents effectively and those that don’t.
Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Keeping control over the incident management process is fundamental to avoid friction and make sure your projects go off without a hitch.