Adopting problem management best practice can feel like a tough mountain to climb

3 Problem Management Tips to Stop the Snowball Effect

How often do you find yourself standing on the side of a snow-capped mountain, frozen to the spot while helplessly looking up at the rapidly growing and descending snowball of your IT nightmares? Metaphorically-speaking of course, but hopefully you get the point.

What started out as a potentially insignificant issue has snowballed into a much more complex problem and it’s now threatening the efficient operation of your business. So what can you to do about it? Introduce best practice of course.

The Power of Problem Management

In my opinion, an effective problem management capability is essential in trying to prevent the potentially catastrophic effects of the incident (or problem) snowball. It will provide you with a lifeline and a chance to take control of issues well before they’ve had the chance to pick up momentum and start to seriously affect your business operations.

However, problem management isn’t always an easy mountain to climb. Sometimes you need a heads up on some of the challenges that you might face along the way and hopefully my three problem management tips will help.

Tip 1: Know your way around incidents and problems

Before you even start with problem management it’s important to understand what a problem is.

It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of believing that an incident and a problem are one and the same, but they’re not, and getting this wrong could derail your problem management approach.

So what does this look like in “real life”? Let’s use the example of a faulty ice pick. You’re climbing up a mountain and your pick gets lodged in a rock, it’s not going anywhere and neither are you. This is an incident, as it’s disrupting your ability to “work,” i.e. it’s stopping you from getting to where you need to be. But you have a spare in your bag so you pull that out and continue on your way – this is a workaround as you haven’t really fixed the issue with the first ice pick. Instead you have found a way to continue “working.”

You continue on but you can’t help feel that the second ice pick isn’t behaving as it should, with it taking more and more effort to use. In fact, it appears to be the same issue as with the first ice pick, and this time you don’t have a spare for when it eventually gets lodged in a rock. It’s a really big problem for you as a mountain climber but it’s also a “problem” from an IT service management (ITSM) or ITIL perspective – it’s a repeat incident or issue.

While it’s no help to you “in the moment,” i.e. while you’re potentially trapped on the mountain, in an ITSM context any such repeat issue can be flagged as a problem, with root cause analysis undertaken to understand why it’s occurring and how best to fix it. In the case of the faulty ice pick it might be that the wrong type of ice pick was sourced or that this particular brand of ice pick is prone to defects or rapid deterioration when used.

Tip 2: Don’t panic if things get tough, be methodical

If you start to work on an issue only to realize, part-way through, that you’re at the tip of the iceberg, chipping away in vain at the surface, while an even bigger issue emerges beneath you, don’t panic. Such panic often incurs far more time and resource than taking a more methodical approach to finding a solution. Although if you’re on a mountain, facing a blizzard, then I can appreciate how panic sets in.

The first thing that you need to do is to realize that this is probably a problem rather than an incident. Then you need to take a systematic approach to defining and specifying the problem to get a clearer view of its nature. In an IT context this might involve collecting evidence, researching, investigating, and interviewing customers. Good practice involves categorizing the main causes of the problem under generic headings such as people, processes, policies, equipment, environment, and management. And you can take a methodical approach to this using the Fishbone technique.

Then analyze the identified causes to find sub-causes. Try to understand WHY people, processes, policies, equipment, environment, and management have contributed to the problem. Repeat the process by again creating a sub-sub-cause list, and continue this process until you run out of potential root causes. This will generate multiple layers and levels of potential causes, all leading to the resultant “effect” of the problem.

It’s definitely hard to be so methodical when trapped in a blizzard – and major incident management might seem more fitting – but when a problem is in a less time-sensitive environment, problem management is a perfect fit.

Tip 3: Look out for the incident avalanche

If your team is complaining about the number of tickets that seem to point back to the same old issues (most likely problems), it’s very likely that you’ve encountered an incident avalanche. But don’t worry you can still make it home safely.

So step back and survey your landscape. Can you see banks of snow settling in certain areas, ready to fall on you when you least expect it? In an IT context, it’s about being proactive and identifying the recurring issues – most likely by periodically producing a report from your aggregated ITSM tool data to identify incident trends.

Drill down into the data and look at the volume of incidents by category. If one category has an overwhelming number of similar incidents reported, then you might have identified a problem ripe for root cause analysis and resolution.

Such proactivity will allow you to eliminate recurring incidents, to determine possible problems before they escalate (and to define suitable solutions), and to maintain positive staff morale and performance by avoiding the constant firefighting associated with repeat incidents.

Adopting problem management best practice can feel like a tough mountain to climb but implementing a simple-to-follow problem management process that correctly recognizes what problems are, allows for the application of suitable resources, and with a focus on analysis is a great place to start.

Posted by Joe the IT Guy

Joe the IT Guy
Joe the IT Guy

Native New Yorker. Loves everything IT-related (and hugs). Passionate blogger and Twitter addict. Oh...and resident IT Guy at SysAid Technologies (almost forgot the day job!).


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