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How ITIL Differentiates Problems and Incidents

Barry Corless
  • Date: 04 April, 2019

It’s a question we still get asked all the time, even in the new ITIL 4 Foundation classes:

How do you differentiate between incidents and problems?

To address this issue and offer clarification, this article will identify the differences between incidents and problems, how they are related, and why it matters.

What is an incident?

According to ITIL 4, an incident is an unplanned interruption to a service, or reduction in the quality of a service. What often determines the classification of something as an incident is whether or not the service level agreement (SLA) was breached. However, ITIL allows for raising an incident even before an SLA has been breached in order to limit or prevent impact. For example, automated system monitoring may notice a degradation in response time or other error before an SLA is breached or a customer even notices. In layman’s terms, an incident is the representation of an outage.

What is a problem?

According to ITIL 4, a problem is a cause, or potential cause, of one or more incidents. Problems can be raised in response to a single significant incident or multiple similar incidents. They can even be raised without the existence of a corresponding incident. For example, monitoring may reveal an issue that has not yet resulted in an incident but if left unchecked it may cause more issues. In layman’s terms, a problem is the representation of the cause or potential cause or one or more outages.

Why does best practice distinguish between incidents and problems?

The point of distinguishing between incidents and problems is the same as separating cause and effect. Problems are the cause, and incidents are the effect.

ITIL 4 encourages organizations to distinguish between the two because they are often treated and resolved differently. Addressing an incident simply means that whatever service was impacted has been “temporarily” restored. It does not mean that the incident will not recur at some time in the future. When we say “temporarily,” keep in mind that could mean one minute or 10 years. The point is that a resolution to an incident is not always permanent.

Problems, however, are the cause of incidents. We might use different techniques to identify the underlying causes of a problem, potential workarounds and ultimately a structural resolution to the problem.

Effective incident management ensures that as a service provider you are able to keep the promises you made in your SLAs by providing a mechanism to quickly restore service when it’s necessary. Problem management ensures that as a service provider you are able to reactively respond to incidents so that they don’t recur and proactively prevent incidents from happening.

These are separate practices in ITIL 4 because they often require different skill sets and activities. Incident management wants to quickly restore service in line with any SLAs that are in place whereas problem management wants to eliminate the underlying causes of incidents.

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Barry Corless

Global Product Director for DevOps and IT Service Management

As a Global Product Director for leading IT and business skills training specialist Global Knowledge, Barry Corless is responsible for helping organisations enhance organisational capability through application of best practice frameworks.  His role incorporates the development and delivery of service management, DevOps, programme and project management, enterprise architecture and business analysis learning and development solutions.  An experienced consultant and IT specialist, Barry undertook additional voluntary roles Director of itSMF International from 2017-2019, and Chair of itSMF UK from 2009-2011.  

An industry champion for ITIL, Barry credits its common-sense approach to endemic IT issues as the reason for his long-term track record with this international service management practice.  He has trained and consulted on ITIL in over 20 countries. Barry continues to act as an ITIL examiner and has been part of the author team that inputs into the ever-adapting ITIL guidelines.  

Barry’s attraction to analytical problem solving began early and his first ambition was to be a weather man.  He became an Assistant Scientific Officer for The Meteorological Office after leaving school in Cheshire.  Barry recognises that passion for the topic is a key attribute for success as a trainer, as well as the ability to bring a subject to life.  He thinks open-mindedness is vital.  “Lifelong learning has taught me that we all have to prepare to unlearn what we previously accepted as best practice,” he says. 

Having spent over 20 years training he has seen many changes in an industry that has embraced virtual classroom and digital learning.  He advocates the teaching of project management and service management skills early.  “In an economy that is 80% service based, we should be teaching these key management skills in schools,” he says.   

As Best Practice department head, Barry enjoys the variety that his role brings him, and he continues to work with consultancy and education clients to ‘keep it real’.  Barry’s ability to identify with learners makes him a sought-after trainer and his passion and detailed understanding of ITIL meant that Global Knowledge was able to develop the world’s first bridging course for professionals going from ITIL v3 to ITIL 4.  Global Knowledge remains the world’s leading provider of ITIL certification and exams.  

A popular commentator on ITIL and a frequent blogger, Barry doesn’t like to think of himself as ‘one track minded’.  “ITIL skills are transferable outside the IT hinterland and lesson learned in other environments should be used in optimising technology solutions” he promises.  “ITIL4 is more focussed on people, agility and collaboration.  With the pressure on IT teams to provide a lightning-fast route to market, it’s vital that all stakeholders across an organisation and throughout the supply chain are working well together.”  

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