Incident management: How to create a plan (plus 7 best practices)

July 1st, 20218 min read
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Have you ever experienced an interruption while working on a project and run into disorganization as a result? Most of us have been there, unfortunately. But thankfully, there’s a way to resolve these issues in real time without sacrificing team productivity

Incident management is the process of analyzing and correcting project interruptions as quickly as possible. That means more time spent on delivering impact—not to mention completing the project at hand. 

We’ll go over the process of incident management and best practices to implement a strategy of your own so that you’re ready if and when the next project incident occurs. 

What is incident management?

Incident management is the process of detecting, investigating, and responding to incidents while they happen in as little time as possible. While it’s not always a permanent solution, incident management is important in order to finish projects on time, or as close to the set deadline as possible. 

Incident management can be implemented within any team, though IT teams use it frequently and sometimes refer to it as IT infrastructure library (ITIL) incident management. 

Project managers use incident management during projects in order to prevent hazards from derailing tasks. This is done with the help of a five-step process that ensures incidents get solved efficiently and correctly. 

Read: Efficiency vs. effectiveness in business: Why your team needs both

There is often confusion between incident management and problem management. Let’s compare each and uncover the differences. 

The five steps of an incident response plan

An incident response plan is made of five important steps. Each of these steps makes up the incident management lifecycle and helps teams track and address project hazards. This is somewhat similar to a change control process, with the main difference being a project change vs. a major incident. 

Five steps of an incident response plan

From incident identification to prioritizing and ultimately responding, each of these steps helps incidents flow seamlessly through the process. Without an effective response plan, your projects could be at risk of running into serious issues. This is especially true for IT teams and DevOps due to the technical nature of their work. It’s also one of the reasons incident management is most commonly used within IT service management departments.

There are five steps in an incident management plan:

  1. Incident identification

  2. Incident categorization

  3. Incident prioritization

  4. Incident response

  5. Incident closure

Let’s learn more about the five steps of an effective incident management system, how to spot and resolve issues when they arise, and how resource allocation comes into the mix. 

1. Incident identification

The first step in an incident response plan is identifying the incident. An issue can arise in almost any part of a project, whether that’s internal, vendor-related, or customer-facing. This could affect the prioritization of the incident, which you’ll document in later steps. 

To identify an incident, you should include the following:

  • Name or ID number

  • Description

  • Date

  • Incident manager

Each of these will be helpful for references later on, especially if you have a problem management plan in place. This way you can find the root cause of the incident and ensure it doesn’t happen again. 

2. Incident categorization

Once you’ve identified the incident, you can move on to categorization. This helps for a variety of reasons, including easy identification and distribution to appropriate teams. The faster you can identify the incident, the sooner you can get back to executing the project. 

Your category should be a high-level description of what topic the issue involves or a related trigger word. For example, if you run into a software bug related to development issues, you may categorize it simply as “Development.” Some teams also include a sub-category for more details, which would be along the lines of “Development bug.”

There isn’t a hard and fast rule when it comes to incident management categories, so focus on ways your team can easily identify issues. 

3. Incident prioritization

Once an incident is identified and categorized, you can move on to incident prioritization. There are a couple of key things to consider when it comes to ranking project incidents by importance. 

First, you’ll need to look at what other incidents, if any, you’re prioritizing against. This will involve weighing the outcomes of each of these incidents. Since incident management focuses on immediate fixes, you should look to resolve issues that will have immediate impacts over long-term ramifications. 

You’ll also need to prioritize incidents against project tasks that need to be completed. Consider if the incident is more important than the deliverables at hand. If it isn’t, can it wait to be resolved until team members are free to help? Once you’ve considered both prioritization factors, you can get started on your high-priority incidents first. 

Streamline your work prioritization process with our free work request template

4. Incident response

Responding to incidents involves performing an analysis to diagnose the issue and move on to the incident resolution phase. Most issues have some form of resolution, but if there isn’t one readily available you may need to escalate the issue with the help of appropriate department leaders. In this case, troubleshooting and clever workarounds may be necessary to solve the incident.

Once you have analyzed your incident and found the underlying issue, it’s time to delegate your response plan by allocating resource deliverables. This can be done within an incident log or using work management software. However you choose to do so, those who are involved, and even stakeholders who aren’t, should be informed of the plan. This will ensure there is project visibility and open communication. 

While managing incidents can help prevent problems, you may come across a problem while resolving an incident. It can be difficult to resist the urge to perform a root cause analysis in these instances, but it’s important you wait to analyze the cause with a proper problem management plan. That way you can fix the incident as quickly as possible in real time and get back to executing the project. 

5. Incident closure

The final stage of incident logging is closing the response deliverables. You’ll want to keep any documentation you’ve created in the above steps by storing it in a shared workspace for future reference. This can be anything from a shared drive to a digital project folder. 

Beyond storing information, you’ll also need to ensure response deliverables have been properly executed before closing any open tasks. Whether you use a ticketing system, service desk, or service requests, it’s reassuring to know there aren’t unresolved dependencies. Once all tasks have been completed, you can officially close the incident response plan. 

During your post-mortem project meeting, you may want to talk through any incidents that occurred during the project. This can be a great transition into the problem management phase of a project where you work to solve the root cause and create a more effective meeting

Seven incident management best practices

Now that you know what goes into an incident response plan, it’s time to create an incident log of your own. Getting started can be difficult depending on the type of project and team you’re working with. But with a few best practices and an example incident response log, you’ll be able to document and properly respond to incidents when they arise.

Here’s an example indent log to inspire your own. 

Incident log example

View our template gallery or create your own custom log to get started.

Some key incident management best practices include keeping your log organized, properly training and communicating with your team, and automating processes if possible. Let’s dive into seven incident management best practices.

1. Identify early and often   

While documenting incidents that arise may seem like an easy task, it also involves identifying issues early. Incidents can be tricky to spot, but the quicker you diagnose them, the easier the outcome will be to handle. 

The best thing to do is set aside time to examine project issues as often as possible. This will allow you to know precisely what problems are occurring and which might escalate to full-blown incidents. 

Tip: Once you identify the incident, make sure to document it in your incident log.

2. Keep your work tidy   

Organization is key in any part of project management, but especially when documenting problems that could have long-lasting effects. You can do this by tidying your information often and keeping descriptions brief. 

If you feel like more information should be added to your response log but there isn’t enough room, consider linking to an outside space where more detailed responses live. You may also need to attach meeting minutes in the event of teams needing to gather to brainstorm techniques in order to solve the issue. 

Tip: Create a baseline character count to keep descriptions short and close out dependencies to prevent disorganization. 

3. Educate your team   

Not many teams are informed about incident management, so it’s your job to educate your team members to some degree. 

While formal training isn’t always needed, it’s a good idea to take them through any programs they’ll be working in and the types of issues that could turn into problems. That way they can help flag incidents before they get out of hand. 

Tip: Set up a meeting to walk your team through your incident log and any other needed tools. 

4. Automate tasks   

Automation is a great method to use if available to you. While it’s sometimes difficult to set up, it can save you a ton of time in the long run (not to mention the headaches from resolving incidents). 

With the right automation software, also known as ITSM tools, you can program incidents to be flagged automatically. While this won’t be a be-all-and-end-all solution, it can help catch issues that you may have missed otherwise. 

Tip: Don’t forget to check automated tasks often. Setting and forgetting can result in mistakes being missed. 

5. Communicate in one place  

Communication can be distributed at times, especially in a virtual work environment. In fact, teams are spending 30% more time on duplicate work. That’s why it’s so important to create an organized method of team communication. This starts with keeping collaboration in a shared space, often with the help of software tools. Not only will this save you and your team time in the future, but it will also help to reference communication when you need it. 

Tip: Set up a meeting to walk your team through your incident log and any other needed tools. 

Read: 100+ teamwork quotes to motivate and inspire collaboration

6. Use project management tools   

There are numerous tools you can use to create and maintain your incident management plan, project management software being one of them. 

Not only can it help organize work and communication, but it can also help your team build workflows and align goals to the work needed to complete them. This is important when managing incidents as many teams will likely need to work together to solve issues. The more confusion there is around communication and tasks, the longer it will take to solve incidents in real time. 

Tip: Use a project management calendar to visualize work and deadlines in one place.  

Try project management with Asana

7. Continue improving   

Just like any plan you put into place, it’s essential to always work to improve it over time. Your first run at an incident response plan will likely look different from your 100th. Over time you’ll learn ways to become more efficient and it will be easier to spot incidents before they turn into problems. 

While practice makes perfect, there are additional ways you can expand your knowledge base. Some of these include continuing your education and tracking performance metrics. Attending webinars, listening to podcasts, and reading newsletters can all inspire you to bring new ideas back to your team. Plus, project tracking and analyzing KPIs can help you and your team learn from your mistakes.

Tip: Continue your education by learning how to create a resource management plan next. 

Problem management vs. incident management

While there are a few differentiating factors when it comes to problem management vs. incident management, one key difference stands out. That is, problem management is the process of correcting the root cause of a project hazard, while incident management involves correcting a project interruption with a quick fix.

Problem management vs. incident management

You can visualize this difference with a simple analogy. If incident management is the bandaid over a wound, then problem management is the ointment. Both are important in protecting the wound but have different purposes. 

While both systems are needed, they provide different outcomes and happen at different times in the project lifecycle. Incident management happens when an incident occurs, while problem management looks to solve the underlying issue after the fact to ensure it doesn’t happen again. 

What is incident management?

An incident is defined as a single event that causes disruption. In this case, a quick approach is needed in order to manage the incident before it becomes a problem. 

Here are some key differentiating characteristics of an incident:

  • An incident is a single spontaneous event.

  • An incident is an unplanned interruption.

  • An incident is quickly solved in real time.

In short, an incident is a single event that is resolved quickly.

What is problem management?

A problem is defined as a cause of one or more incidents. An analysis will happen over time to resolve the underlying root cause.  

Here are some key differentiating characteristics of a problem:

  • A problem is the result of multiple similar events.

  • A problem halts business operations.

  • A problem is solved by resolving the root cause over time.

In short, a problem is the result of multiple events and is solved over time. 

Read: Ask “5 Whys” to get to the root of any problem

Managing incidents doesn’t happen incidentally

Now that you’re prepared on how to create an incident management process, handling project incidents will be a breeze. With the seven best practices detailed above, you can ensure your plan is as effective as possible—saving both time and money. 

Looking for additional ways to improve your team’s workflow? Learn about the five project management phases.

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