The Value of Proactive Problem Management

Erika Flora
Written by Erika Flora

Only the bravest – and ultimately the most successful – of IT organizations take Incident Management one step further and spend their time and energy getting Problem Management right.  Here’s why it’s important to do so, and a few ideas to get you going in the right direction.

Why Problem Management Is Important

Incident Management is important in getting customers back up and running when something breaks. Because this process is extremely visible and important to customers, most IT organizations spend a lot of time and energy making sure Incident Management is running smoothly. Problem Management, however, gives us a mechanism to understand root cause (as opposed to Incident Management where you are primarily dealing with “symptoms”) and get rid of nagging issues that continue to come back. When done well, Problem Management resolves and removes the underlying issues that result in incidents altogether.

Let’s look at a simple analogy: The difference between Incident and Problem Management is the difference between treating cold symptoms with Dayquil versus going to the doctor, finding out you have pneumonia, and getting a prescription for antibiotics meant to deal with the underlying cause and hopefully eradicate everything that is making you feel sick. If our sickness is persistent enough, we will finally drag ourselves to a doctor or specialist to try and understand the problem and get rid of what ails us.

The Case for Proactive Problem Management

When you ask people if they do Problem Management, the answer is typically a resounding yes. However, when you dig into WHEN they do Problem Management, you’ll often find it is done in a very reactive fashion. Say the organization has had a critical outage, for instance, and customers are demanding to know what caused the painful disruption. That’s when many organizations dig in to find root cause. But why wait until the damage is done? Some of the most effective organizations in the world practice proactive Problem Management and find tremendous benefit in it. Here’s what that looks like – and what you can do to become proficient at it.

Finding A Process Owner

Any process you wish to stabilize and improve must have an owner. While most ITIL processes can be owned by anyone in IT, Problem Management is an exception. Your Problem Manager should not be someone who works on the Service Desk. This is true for a couple of reasons.

First, the Problem Manager often needs deeper technical skills and must be able to pull the right people in the room to solve the problem. They don’t need to be able to solve every problem themselves, but they do need to have an understanding of who should be in the room to talk through technical issues.

Second, the Problem Manager and Service Desk roles are often contradictory; While the Service Desk works to resolve incidents as quickly as possible, Problem Management can spend hours, if not weeks, working to understand causality, then resolving, a single Problem. You will only confuse and frustrate the people at the Service Desk if you give them contradictory directives.  Keep these processes separate by finding someone outside of the Service Desk to own Problem Management.

Becoming More Proactive

So, how exactly do you become more proactive? Once you’ve assigned a Problem Manager with adequate ITIL training to own the process, empower them to dig into reporting in an effort to identify trends that may uncover related incidents and underlying Problems that may not be immediately apparent. It’s hugely important that the Problem Manager be given enough time over the course of the day/week/month to accomplish this task. Be sure your Problem Manager is enabled to carve out the time necessary to see each problem through to resolution.

The Problem Manager should also maintain a list of prioritized problems to discuss with other team members and/or leadership. One way to manage this is by establishing a Problem Management Committee, as a customer of ours does. This committee meets for an hour each week to discuss open Problems, assign ownership to each high priority Problem, drive the highest priority Problems to conclusion, and report successes to leadership and colleagues. This format is especially effective because it instills discipline with respect to regularly discussing and resolving problems, which is the very thing that keeps them proactive.

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Originally published October 10 2016, updated January 01 2019