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Incident vs. Problem [Understanding the Differences]

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Myra Nizami
Myra Nizami
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Curious about incidents vs. problems? We explain the differences and how to handle each one.

What is the difference between incident vs. problem?

A problem is a cause or potential cause of an incident. An incident is a single unplanned event that causes an outage or a disruption of service. 

The wording is essential when trying to distinguish between an incident vs. a problem. An incident is triggered by something occurring - the ‘what’ behind the incident is important because it points to an underlying problem that’s the cause of the incident itself. Identifying the cause leading to the incident is where the term ‘problem’ comes in. 

Where do the terms incident management and problem management come in?

Incident management is the process of focusing on what’s going on currently and reacting to the impact on the system health. If there is a failure or an interruption, the term incident management is used as a way to organize efforts and implement processes to mitigate the issue. Incident management aims to resolve the situation as quickly as possible using reactive measures. 

Problem management focuses less on resolution and more on identifying the root cause of the incident and fixing that. Problem management is about analyzing why the incident has happened and how to prevent it from happening. There is often confusion since the definition of the problem in this context tends to have the word incident in it as well, leading to confusion on how to use the terms and what the correct definition is. But the best way to understand the difference between incident vs. problem management, think of it this way: where incident management is reactive, problem management is preventative. 

Why do incident and problem management matter?

Ultimately, each process leads to a change that improves reliability and the customer experience. If incidents are frequently occurring and causing a disruption, customers will not keep using your service. Or if it’s an internal issue that continues to be a problem, your engineers will suffer. 

If underlying problems causing repeat incidents are not identified and fixed in time, it means the solution won’t work long-term. The goal for both incident management and problem management is to bring about a change for the better by identifying cause and effect, respectively. 

Having a culture in place that allows for both incident management and problem management and bringing about change accordingly is where customers and the business itself will benefit the most. Managing incidents, problems, and changes is about taking care of the incident as soon as possible while understanding what the problem causing the incident is and what needs to change in order to prevent the incident from happening again. 

Problem management also extends to developing better processes and procedures after the initial incident resolution, including automation, documentation, categorization, and more. These follow-up tasks to improve the system emerge from incident retrospectives and post-incident reviews. Teams can identify repeat incidents, such as frequent outages or data breaches, and come up with ways that go beyond just the moment at hand but develop solutions as part of long-term problem management. This pattern recognition can be achieved through Reliability Insights.

Long-term problem management can also be a learning tool to help teams understand where areas of improvement are based on incidents occurring. After incident resolution occurs, retrospectives help teams understand what happened, how team members solved the issue, and what can be done to prevent the incident from happening again. Retrospectives allow teams to reflect on the entire process, identify areas of improvement, and work together as a team to create robust, long-term solutions in place, such as automation and documentation for prevention. 

The problem management phase will include logging, categorization, analysis, documentation, and identifying whether the workarounds are effective and any long-term change controls needed.

What is an example of incident vs. problem?

To provide an example of incident vs. problem, let’s take an eCommerce site. The website is functioning well, and customers can use all the website features with relative ease and relatively few errors – if any at all. Then, all of a sudden, the cart feature crashes. As a result, users cannot access the cart feature at all, including purchasing existing products or adding more to their cart. 

The incident entails a significant business loss for the eCommerce site, angry and frustrated customers, and a lot of stress. In this scenario, incident management would focus on getting the cart feature up and running again as soon as possible. That means that relevant team members are alerted of the problem immediately and get to work getting the feature up and running again. 

They are reacting to an issue presented, and their goal is to get everything up and running again and minimize impact. Problem management will then focus on identifying the underlying problem causing the cart feature to crash. Is it a bug in the code, a third-party server issue, or something else? 

The processes within incident management and problem management may happen separately, or they may occur in collaboration depending on the teams and their responsibilities. For example, it might be that a part of the team focuses on a workaround to get the cart feature up and running as quickly as possible to reduce disruption for customers. Once that’s done, the team can spend more time on problem management and uncovering why it’s happening to prevent it from happening again.

However, in other instances, problem management and incident management may coincide with developing a solution that ensures the incident won’t happen again. During the problem management phase, teams will work together to understand if their initial incident resolution was the right choice and how to move forward to ensure customers do not have to experience another disruption. 

How can Blameless help?

How incident management and problem management play out will largely depend on the problem and the available team resources. However, the key to successfully managing incidents and problems is to develop processes that help teams understand how to approach incident management and problem management. 

The other crucial part of incident management and problem management is having tools to help teams manage incidents effectively, with automation in place to ensure standardization. In addition, incident management tools enable team members to solve issues and help with longer-term problem management. This can include features such as incident logs, runbook automation, and more to help teams have productive postmortems and develop long-term solutions to the underlying problem causing the incidents. 

Blameless is an incident resolution tool that helps teams minimize the impact of incidents through features such as automated incident response, a streamlined incident management process, and real-time data straight from observability and monitoring tools to create a detailed picture of what occurred. Using these features, teams can use Blameless as part of their retrospectives during the problem management phase to understand what caused the incident and collaborate on solutions to prevent the incident from occurring again. To learn more about how Blameless helps teams with incident management and problem management, schedule a demo today!

Myra Nizami

Myra Nizami

Myra is a writer and researcher with a Bachelor's degree from Cornell University and a Master's degree from Kings College London.

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