While it may seem like there's scant distinction between incident management vs. problem management, there’s actually a considerable difference, and it’s important to recognize what separates them in the IT landscape.  

Why is it important to know the difference between problems vs. incidents?

On the surface, it may seem like an “incident” and a “problem” are the same thing. In layperson’s terms, either can describe a situation having a negative impact on a business. But in IT, the two terms are very different and must be addressed and managed accordingly, with different goals in mind. Ergo, incident management vs. problem management: they’re not the same thing.

At its most basic definition, an incident is a singular, independent event. Incidents are often along the lines of an event or issue where users file an IT helpdesk ticket and expect IT to resolve it quickly. A problem is the root cause of incidents, and problem management tries to prevent incidents from happening by addressing the underlying reasons that can create recurring incidents.

Think about this incident vs. problem scenario: a trucking company is running a fleet of vehicles. One of its trucks may experience a flat tire that they need to change quickly to get it back on the road. This event is an incident in that it’s isolated and only impacts that one truck. In this case, incident management is changing the tire to get the truck back into operation ASAP.

Flat tires may move from being an incident to requiring problem management if they recur repeatedly or more than they reasonably should. In this case, the trucking company would investigate further to identify the root cause of the excess flat tires. 

What’s the problem underlying these incidents? It may be that those particular tires are under a recall. Or the tire maintenance schedule isn’t being followed, causing flats to result more often. Or the drivers are taking a route with surface hazards — construction debris, for instance — causing the flats. 

By identifying this underlying cause, the company can implement action to prevent future related incidents. 

Basic principles that are essential to fixing issues

These basic principles are used by IT to appropriately identify incidents vs. problems and address them appropriately. That’s why it’s important for business owners and managers outside IT to understand the difference between an incident and a problem, and when to apply incident management vs. problem management. 

While the terms may seem interchangeable, communicating clearly using the technical language of IT support will help reduce confusion and frustration. If you tell IT support you have an incident when, in truth, it’s a farther-reaching problem, the underlying root cause could be left unaddressed, causing future headaches. 

Understanding the difference can help the organization reach an appropriate resolution faster.

Let’s dive deeper into IT incident management vs. problem management, both of which are ITIL processes commonly used at organizations across multiple industries.

What is incident management?

In distinguishing incident management vs. problem management, let’s first examine IT incident management. Its goal? To restore service operations as quickly as possible and minimize the impact of an outage or service degradation. In practice, we see this in the IT support desk being focused on troubleshooting individual tickets — sometimes with a workaround rather than a true fix. 

The activities associated with incident management primarily deal with recording the details of the incident, classifying it, investigating it and ultimately resolving the incident.

The strategy and process underpinning effective incident management appear in many places outside IT. As an illustration of how incident management works, let’s imagine we’re having a bout of back pain. Proper incident management should function like a well-run doctor’s office. 

On our first visit to the orthopaedist, we fill out forms to provide the context of our overall health and to describe our symptoms in detail. Our doctor uses that information, in addition to an X-ray, to diagnose and prescribe a treatment plan. 

The doctor thoroughly documented the incident (the back pain), investigated it and implemented an effective plan to resolve the issue quickly and effectively.

The incident management function within the enterprise

Within business environments, many incidents are IT-related. Whether an IT organization aligns with ITIL or not, there’s almost always a role or function responsible for managing incidents — whether it’s a team of two or two hundred. 

The objectives and key performance indicators (KPIs) for incident management are relatively straightforward:

  • Resolve the incident as quickly as possible.
  • Be conscious of the priority of the incident.
  • Be conscious of the cost of the resolution.
  • Assess the users’ level of satisfaction throughout the process.
  • Measure results with discrete metrics such as first contact resolution, cost per contact and customer satisfaction.

If an incident doesn’t appear to be isolated, IT teams may need to escalate to the problem management team.

What is problem management?

Our next step in defining incident management vs. problem management is to look at how problem management operates within IT. Its goal is to minimize the adverse impact of incidents and problems caused by errors in the infrastructure and to prevent the recurrence of incidents related to those errors. 

The activities associated with problem management primarily deal with identifying why the incident arose in the first place and identifying and documenting known errors.

Unlike incident management, there’s often not a role or function responsible for problem management (this goes beyond the IT support desk, which is focused on incident management). Nor is there always a solid understanding of the objectives and key performance indicators involved. 

Companies must take a conscious extra step to implement problem management, assign resources to the task and define the expected outcomes and KPIs that best fit their organization. 

Problem management in operation

Let’s go back to that back ailment analogy to understand how problem management, when performed well, functions like a comprehensive treatment. 

While the doctor provided some immediate relief (by addressing the incident), they might mention that if the treatment plan wasn’t working and the patient continued to experience pain, they might be dealing with something more significant. In that case, an MRI and further analysis would be called for.

Note that this doesn’t negate the doctor's initial work. They couldn’t provide immediate resolution, but rather a workaround (medication and exercise, while limiting travel) that they’d identified and documented previously, having seen complaints like this in the past. They didn’t recommend surgery during that initial visit, understanding that it’s neither cost-effective nor appropriate until the root cause is determined.

Understanding the difference between incident and problem management is merely the first step. The doctor’s office analogy helps us understand that:

  • Incident management deals with an individual incident as quickly as possible.
  • Problem management deals with why the incident (or multiple similar incidents) occurred. 

The latter seeks to either eliminate the root cause or build an effective, easily deployable workaround.

What does fixing an incident require?

The next area to look at, when considering the differences between incident management vs. problem management, are the structures or practices in place so you can carry through and “manage” incidents vs. problems.

As we covered earlier, every organization must have at least a few individuals or a team dedicated to incident management and resolution (likely an IT support desk or the team that handles IT support tickets). 

Without dedicated owners, incidents may not be resolved quickly, effectively or consistently. Beyond having a team in place, there are a few key factors involved in successful incident management, particularly when addressing IT and operational-related incidents. 

For incident management to be effective, it's important to meet the following requirements:

  • Continuous development of problem and error control.
  • A tiered support structure, where the team understands Tier 1 and 2 escalations.
  • A continual service improvement program that measures efficiency and effectiveness through KPIs aligned to organizational goals and objectives.
  • Clear, documented roles and responsibilities within IT in terms of desired outcomes.

Furthermore, IT must have robust incident management software at its disposal that includes:

  • Integration of the IT service desk software and the IT asset management repository. This integration provides IT support with context regarding the assets and services the user leverages, negating the need to fill out forms.
  • A knowledge base within the ITSM tool that helps spread, scale and standardize symptomatology. The knowledge base helps IT support work more quickly and maintain consistency across the team.
  • The view of an IT service map provided by the ITSM solution’s configuration management database (CMDB). Service maps help IT understand what’s happening at the service level and better isolate troublesome configuration items that impact availability and performance.

These tools and processes will make it easier for IT or the service desk to collect the information needed, with the appropriate context to fully understand the incident and its impact. 

That leads us into the second phase of fixing an incident: categorization and prioritization. Not all incidents will have the same impact on an organization, and the ones causing the most influential disruptions need to be addressed first (i.e., an in-house printer not working versus a customer portal that ties to company service level agreements (SLAs) being inaccessible). 

What does fixing a problem require?

The integration of change, assets and knowledge adds value to the incident management process, and therefore to the organization. So why do we see such a major drop-off when it comes to the problem management process?

A 2022 study from ITSM.tools found that only 38% of organizations had adopted problem management processes. You could make a case that the low adoption rate of problem management can most often be attributed to a lack of understanding of why problem management is important to the organization, which affects the alignment of roles and responsibilities associated with the process. 

There also tends to be an over-reliance on technology, which creates problem records and assigns ownership, but can’t within itself encourage individuals to determine root cause, identify workarounds and recommend resolution approaches.

Understanding the incident and its impact will help IT teams assign proper resources and priority.

Once IT believes they’ve resolved the incident, or they’ve provided a workaround, they should check with end users to ensure the solution functions as intended and that no more user pain points persist.

The problem with problem management

To build successful problem management processes, IT must first determine why the process is important to them (reducing future incidents, minimizing downtime, improving infrastructure, etc.), and assign the roles and resources accordingly. 

At a minimum, IT leaders must apply the same amount of rigor as they do with incident management.

A problem management leader must ensure that:

  • Problems and errors are regularly (and properly) classified and identified.
  • Workarounds are documented and communicated to the incident management function.
  • The problem management process has well-defined and relevant KPIs (as determined by the organization and its goals for problem management).
  • Roles and responsibilities are clear and documented.

IT must also ensure it has the proper enabling ITSM solution with dedicated problem management capabilities that performs the following functions:

  • Provide rich incident dashboards and filterable incident record tables that enable Problem Managers to detect and isolate similar recurring incidents. 
  • Cross-reference the details of the incident against both the knowledge base and the known-error database, making it easier to link incident records to problem records.
  • Make it easy to assign ownership of problem records to individuals or functional groups.
  • Make it easy to quickly promote problems to Request for Change (RFC), complete with all the necessary context and documentation.
  • Provide a full and rich dashboard that intuitively organizes critical problem management metrics into a single panel.

Problem Management is both a reactive and proactive process. Incident Analysts can identify recurring incidents and submit problem requests as a reactive measure. The real strength of problem management is when problem management teams diligently and search for potential problems or infrastructure weaknesses that haven’t yet caused incidents but are likely to in the future. This is an important component of a truly effective problem management approach, and there are ways it can assist in accomplishing it.

Problems are considered resolved when a solution has been implemented or a well-documented and communicated workaround has been put in place, and the incident are no longer occurring.

Incident management vs. problem management: it’s vital to know the difference 

In considering incident management vs. problem management, we must recognize they’re similar–so similar that many people new to ITIL have difficulty separating the two. But there’s a key difference between the two, and that lies in the ultimate end goal.

We need to remember that incident management aims to resolve an incident while minimizing negative impact quickly and effectively. From there, support teams may move into problem management, with the aim of preventing similar incidents from recurring by addressing the underlying root cause.

For business owners and managers, understanding the difference between an IT incident vs. problem can help them effectively communicate with IT support and establish realistic expectations regarding outcomes.

In the end, it’s less about incident management vs. problem management and more about how the two are complimentary. Implementing effective incident management and problem management can be complicated, especially if your organization is new to ITIL. The key is to focus on your desired outcomes and find the processes that work best for your company and team.