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Uptime Blog

7 Incident Management Best Practices for Long Term Success

Incidents can have a massive impact on your operations, negatively affecting customers, employees, and stakeholders. Preparing in advance is the best way to restore normal service operations as quickly as possible.

Incident management involves planning and taking action on a plan during an unexpected event or service interruption, with the goal being to quickly and effectively restore what was broken or faulty during the incident. Strong incident management enables organizations to prepare for incidents before they occur, avoid recurring incidents from becoming a reality, and effectively resolve them when they do occur. Any organization that’s implemented incident management best practices knows that even the most stable and secure systems are bound to break or fail at some point, and that protection is the best defense.

Some of the most effective incident management best practices are industry agnostic, meaning that any organization can rely on them to support their organization. Consider the following seven examples, and if they should be implemented in your processes.

Incident Management Best Practices

1. Create Teams with the Right Skills

When forming an incident management team, selecting the appropriate people with the right skill sets is vital. These people can include fellow team members, internal and external stakeholders, and even third-party service providers. If your business offers a number of different products or solutions, you may need a unique team for each offering. For example, you may require different members of the Product team to sit in different responder groups depending on their internal expertise, whereas you may only need one or two members of the Communications team to be involved with all of the response teams.

Businesses need to define each team member’s role and responsibilities before incidents occur. Clarifying each member’s required training enables you to properly execute your incident strategy. This pre-planning saves headaches and delays during incidents and helps your company contain the incident more efficiently. The incident response team should comprise a mix of expertise to handle any potential incident your organization could face.

2. Clearly Define Your Incident Management Vocabulary

At any time, and especially during an emergency, there’s no room for misinterpretation.

When developing an incident response strategy, always use predefined terminology that all team members understand. Many incident plans contain a mix of business, compliance, technical, and legal terms. Regardless of your team members’ backgrounds, they must understand the meaning of all terms and acronyms that are used when responding to an incident, and creating the plan itself. A clearly defined vocabulary ensures all members work as a coherent unit and avoid wasting valuable time that they can use to decrease an incident’s recovery time.

For instance, agreed service time (AST) indicates the amount of time service should be available during the year. The service level agreement (SLA) between the service provider and its clients usually specifies an AST. All incident management team members must understand this term to ensure they all work together to achieve the AST. If one team thinks the acronym AST refers to something else, or that it refers to minutes instead of hours, they may not meet the organization’s desired goal.

3. Establish Communication Channels

Communication channels are an essential aspect of an incident response plan. Plans need to contain the contact information for each team member, including their phone number, email address, Slack or other ChatOps details; some teams may find it beneficial to include both the personal and professional contact details for on-call resolvers just in case. Then, an incident management tool can effectively manage communications between all relevant parties in and outside your company.

Your communication plan should address the on-call schedule for resolvers, and the prioritization of who’s next in line should the first responder not be able to help. It should also define the escalation procedures, as well as which stakeholders to inform in case of significant incidents that impact services, such as a customer-facing application being unavailable. Most organizations draw a line between the communications to resolvers and those to stakeholders; resolvers need to know everything that’s going on, whereas stakeholders may only need high-level details.

The plan should also specify when to talk to each stakeholder and what information they should get. For example, managers may just need to know an incident’s basic details, customer service may need specific details to pass on to customers or handle complaints, and resolvers may need almost every gritty detail to dissect the incident’s cause.

4. Cultivate a Blameless Culture

When developing an incident response plan, be sure not to overlook the human side of managing incidents. Human nature and emotional instinct can drive employees to avoid taking responsibility, placing the blame on others. Rarely is this done maliciously, but without a working culture that excuses and accepts that accidents will happen, the instinct to deflect blame is quite immediate.

Although most organizations agree on the wisdom of learning from failure, few have that mindset in the middle of a high-severity crisis. Organizations need to cultivate a blameless culture to ensure that incidents can be responded to and resolved with ease.

While resolving an incident, responders need to determine what caused the failure, not who. Knowing that an API is broken, or a new feature was rolled out recently, allows responders to efficiently determine how to resolve the incident. But if their time is focused on who was responsible for that API or feature rollout, incidents take far longer to resolve. A blameless culture also makes for easier, and ultimately more effective postmortems.

5. Practice Your Incident Response

The best way to ensure an incident response plan will work correctly is to test it. Simulating actual incidents is the best way to practice the incident response, as you can go through the steps one by one and action them, instead of just discussing them.

This simulation helps ensure the response team will work in harmony and effectively during a real crisis. The response team can use tools like Chaos Monkey and Toxiproxy to simulate network and application conditions under stress testing.

Incident response plans should remain up-to-date and must be tested regularly to ensure that teams can execute them correctly during actual incidents. By regularly testing your incident plan, you can discover the gaps and weak practices, and help everyone involved see where they can improve.

6. Don’t Skimp on the Postmortem

The postmortem is an essential phase in any incident response plan. Some organizations are tempted to overlook this phase and simply celebrate success after surpassing a crisis. However by not reviewing the incident’s cause and the team’s recovery steps, you risk falling victim to the same incident in the future.

In a typical postmortem, the incident team meets to discuss what went wrong to cause the incident. Team members also analyze how the incident response plan worked and the steps they should follow to prevent other similar incidents from occurring in the future.

7. Get Help from Automation

Managing your incident plan can be time-consuming and error-prone. Writing documentation requires noting facts and collecting information from all the different parties involved in incident management. Additionally, managing communications between all parties involved in executing the incident plan (both internal and external) can be daunting. Manually auditing the team’s steps to discover the incident’s cause and perform recovery can be challenging, too.

Although you may not be able to automate your entire incident response, tools can help streamline the process by gathering information even while the team focuses on handling the incident, ensuring everyone who needs to receive notifications gets the information, and sifting through the data to highlight trends.

Using an automated incident management solution helps your organization achieve benefits like:

    • Increasing staff efficiency when executing the incident plan
    • Complying with regulations that require specific industries to maintain automatic monitoring
    • Helping maintain service-level agreements (SLAs) and achieve service-level objectives (SLOs)
    • Generating automated reports (documentation) about all incident-handling aspects
    • Enhancing visibility across all departments

The best automated incident management solutions can help you:

    • View a unified dashboard to manage everything related to the incident
    • Generate an incident timeline from when the incident begins until it ends
    • Track team members responsible for resolving the incident while disregarding other inactive users
    • Use pre-built workflows to help responders by connecting your toolchains and collecting information. Or, with some extra customization work, create one-click incident resolution actions using predefined workflows for handling recurring incidents
    • Facilitate communication between incident team members via communication platforms such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom
    • Perform a postmortem using analytics and post-incident metrics. Then, use this information to assess your response and view possible improvements for handling (or preventing) the next incident

For instance, high-profile customers worldwide trust xMatters to help handle incidents. The service reliability platform includes all these features and more. Best of all, xMatters is continually improving based on customers’ experiments and performance metrics.

Next Steps

Incident management is essential for all companies, regardless of their size or industry. No one is immune to incidents, even the most prominent enterprises with vast resources.

Having incident management capabilities in place helps ensure your business quickly and confidently handles sudden outages and incidents to restore critical business operations. Following the seven best practices we’ve outlined here helps ensure your organization is ready when an incident occurs.

In addition to following best practices, you’ll find that turning to automation helps. xMatters service reliability platform provides incident management solutions like automated resolution, dynamic collaboration, and data-driven processes to sustain service continuity and reliable support during sudden incidents. Ready to try out xMatters? Let us show you how it can transform your operations—request your demo today.

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