Incident management vs. problem management

| By:
April Taylor

Understanding the difference between incident management vs problem management is an important component for MSPs following ITIL methodologies. 

While incident management focuses on resolving individual disruptions to restore regular service quickly, problem management digs deeper to identify and eliminate the root causes of those incidents. It's a distinction that can make or break your ability to improve your operational maturity and grow your business.   

This article will break down these concepts to help you effectively manage and optimize your IT management processes for optimal operational efficiency. 

What is incident management? 

Incident management is identifying, analyzing, and correcting disruptions in the IT system to restore normal service operations as quickly as possible. It's a critical aspect of IT service management (ITSM) that directly impacts the efficiency and reliability of your services.

Imagine a scenario where a network server suddenly goes down, disrupting email communication for your client. That's a singular, independent event that requires immediate attention. A user typically files an IT help desk ticket for this incident, triggering the incident management process.

Here's how it might unfold:

  • Identification: Automated monitoring tools or a user report the incident.
  • Analysis: The support team assesses the incident to determine its impact and urgency.
  • Resolution: The team implements a temporary fix or a permanent solution to restore regular service. This can be done via the break-fix approach of paying per service needed, or a subscription-based model.
  • Closure: The team conducts a post-mortem to document the issue, resolution, and lessons learned to prevent future occurrences for clients and internal stakeholders.

Incident management isn’t just about putting out fires—it's about empowering your team to respond swiftly and effectively to unexpected challenges. Handling incidents professionally requires being data-driven and making wise staffing decisions.

Here are some real-world examples that illustrate the importance of incident management:

  1. Server outage: A sudden server failure can halt all operations. Incident management promptly activates a backup server, minimizing downtime.
  2. Security breach: Incident management coordinates the response to contain the threat and protect sensitive data if someone exploits a vulnerability. This is different from incident response, which refers more specifically to the technical portion of this greater process.
  3. Software glitch: A bug in a critical application can disrupt workflows. Incident management identifies the issue and deploys a patch or workaround to keep things running smoothly.

The ITIL framework further enriches incident management by providing standardized procedures and best practices. Understanding how to use the ITIL framework in your help desk operations can lead to more efficient incident handling and a more robust service delivery model.

The importance of incident management

IT incident management is a key component of data-driven operations and operational maturity, and a key component of the ITIL process. When leveraged effectively, incident management can help resolve incidents quickly and minimize business downtime.

Here's why incident management is essential:

  • Quick resolution: Whether a server outage or a software glitch, a rapid response can mitigate the impact of downtime, prevent further complications, and maintain client satisfaction.
  • Monitoring and analysis: Key performance indicators (KPIs) in incident management allow you to track and analyze incidents' nature and response times. This data-driven approach helps in continuous improvement and informed decision-making.
  • Enhanced communication: By organizing communication and following a standardized process, incident management informs and engages all stakeholders. This fosters collaboration and transparency.
  • Risk mitigation: Incident management helps identify potential risks and implement preventive measures. It's a proactive approach that can help safeguard against future incidents.

These examples highlight the vital role that incident management plays in improving service delivery and operational maturity. Focusing on swift resolution and continuous improvement can enhance your ability to organize communication and spend more time working on the business’s profitability and customer satisfaction.

Watch our webinar, Delivering (and measuring) an exceptional customer experience for more insights on how top MSPs are supporting customer satisfaction through techniques like incident and problem management.

What is problem management? 

Problem management is a critical process in IT service management that focuses on identifying and eliminating the underlying root causes of incidents within an IT system. 

It differs from incident management in two primary ways:

1. Focus on underlying causes vs. immediate resolution

Problem management seeks to understand and address the underlying issues that lead to incidents, aiming to prevent them from happening again in the future. Incident management, on the other hand, focuses on resolving individual disruptions as quickly as possible, without necessarily digging into the deeper root causes.

2. Alignment with ITIL

Implementing problem management according to ITIL guidelines ensures a systematic and efficient approach to identifying, analyzing, and resolving the root causes of IT incidents, thereby enhancing the overall stability and reliability of IT operations.

Here's a closer look at the steps behind problem management:

  • Definition and analysis: When multiple incidents of a similar nature occur, it's a sign that there's an underlying problem. Problem management begins with defining the problem, analyzing its impact, and identifying its root cause.
  • Problem resolution: Once you identify the root cause, the next step is to find a permanent solution. This might involve updating software, replacing faulty hardware, or modifying configurations.
  • Knowledge sharing: The team documents and shares the insights gained from resolving a problem to ensure similar, future issues can be resolved quickly.
  • Continuous improvement: Problem management is not a one-time effort. It requires constant monitoring, analyzing, and improvement of processes in accordance with the ITIL framework.

Let's explore some relevant examples of how problem management is applied in different scenarios:

  • Software bug: If users repeatedly encounter a specific error in an application (an incident), problem management would investigate the underlying code or configuration issue causing the error (the problem) and fix it permanently. Practices like patch management can also help proactively with this by keeping all software automatically up to date.
  • Network instability: A faulty router or misconfigured firewall might cause frequent network outages. Problem management would replace or reconfigure the equipment to prevent future outages.
  • Security vulnerabilities: Repeated security breaches could indicate a deeper issue with security protocols. Problem management would analyze the vulnerabilities and implement robust security measures. In addition, vulnerability management can help proactively here by identifying potential attack vectors before they are exploited.

By focusing on the root causes, problem management contributes to a more stable and resilient IT environment. It's about being proactive rather than reactive, empowering your business to improve service delivery, make wise staffing decisions, and enhance operational maturity.

When it comes to understanding incident management vs problem management, problem management offers a long-term perspective, turning challenges into opportunities for growth and innovation.

The importance of problem management 

The significance of problem management in the IT landscape is about understanding and addressing the underlying causes to prevent future incidents.

Here's why problem management is vital:

  • Minimizing impact: The primary goal of problem management is to reduce the adverse effect of incidents by identifying and resolving the root causes. This leads to increased service availability and reliability.
  • Faster problem-solving: A well-defined problem management process is vital for consistency and efficiency within the IT landscape. It promotes a systematic approach to logging, categorizing, and prioritizing problems, leading to effective investigation and resolution. This method enhances both the quality and speed of problem-solving, contributing to overall business growth.
  • Strategic alignment with business goals: Problem management aligns with broader business objectives, helping you build a data-driven strategy and make wise staffing decisions. It supports continuous improvement, fostering innovation and growth.
  • Monitoring and analysis: Key performance indicators (KPIs) in problem management provide insights into the effectiveness of the process. This data-driven approach supports informed decision-making and continuous refinement of the problem management ITIL process.

In the context of incident management vs problem management, the importance of problem management lies in its long-term perspective. It turns challenges into opportunities for growth, empowering your business to improve service delivery and enhance operational maturity.

Why distinguishing between incident management and problem management is important 

Understanding the difference between incident and problem management is more than a matter of terminology. It's about strategy, efficiency, and delivering value to clients.

Let's break down these key differences and explore why this distinction is crucial for you and your clients.

Nature and focus 

  • Incident management: Focuses on the individual events that disrupt normal service operations with the goal of restoring service as quickly as possible. This is a reactive approach that deals with issues as they arise, often handled via help desk software.
  • Problem management: Takes a proactive approach, focusing on identifying and resolving the root causes of incidents within the IT system. This approach aligns with the ITIL framework.

Impact on business goals 

  • Incident management: Handles disruptions swiftly to minimize downtime and maintain business continuity, contributing to effective IT operations management.
  • Problem management: Prioritizes long-term stability and efficiency, addressing the underlying causes to reduce recurring incidents and support a more reliable IT environment.

Client relationship and value delivery 

  • Incident management: Focuses on quick fixes and immediate client satisfaction, and is essential for maintaining trust and meeting service level agreements (SLAs).
  • Problem management: Centers around adding value by enhancing the overall quality of service. It's not just about fixing issues; it's about pursuing strategic and continuous improvement by leveraging the problem management database.

Knowing how to apply both methods can drive value for clients, enhance operational maturity, and foster business growth. The balance of reaction and strategy, fixing and innovating, underpins a data-driven approach to improving service delivery.

Proactive vs. reactive problem management 

In the complex landscape of IT problem management, the approach can make or break success. Let's delve into the differences between reactive and proactive problem management and the profound impact they can have on you and your clients.

  • Reactive problem management: This approach waits for problems to occur before taking action. While it may seem efficient in the short term, it can be detrimental in the long run. Reactive problem management often leads to recurring issues, increased downtime, and frustrated clients.  Note that reactive problem management and incident management are not the same thing. In the event of a program crash or failure, the incident management response would tackle the immediate issue, like restarting the program or reloading another version. Reactive problem management would focus on finding the source of the crash through logs or other information, and this is something that should generally be done proactively.
  • Proactive problem management: In contrast, proactive problem management focuses on preventing problems before they occur. Solutions such as PSA software can help integrate and streamline day-to-day operations via automation, allowing your team to work smarter, not harder.

Download our eBook to learn more about how consolidating help desk, project management, reporting, procurement, and more, can help elevate your service delivery.

Business management solutions for MSPs

Leading MSPs embrace modern IT solutions to help standardize processes, streamline workflows, and deploy best practices and processes for problem management. Watch an on-demand demo of ConnectWise PSA today to take your business to the next level. 


Incident management focuses on reactive resolutions to IT disruptions, whereas problem management focuses on proactive prevention. Incident management is designed to swiftly and promptly resolve service disruptions like server outages. Problem management digs deeper to address the underlying causes behind these incidents in an effort to prevent future issues.

An example of incident management is when there's an unexpected disruption in IT services, such as a critical server failure.

In this scenario, the incident management process would involve:

  • Quickly diagnosing the issue.
  • Implementing a temporary or permanent fix to restore service.
  • Logging the incident for further analysis.

This immediate response and resolution help minimize downtime and ensure the continuity of business operations. Incident management focuses on addressing specific disruptions promptly, aiming to restore normal service as quickly as possible within the framework of ITIL problem management.

An example of problem management involves addressing the root causes behind recurring incidents in IT services.

For instance, if a company experiences frequent server outages, problem management would investigate the underlying issues causing these disruptions. The process would entail analyzing server configurations, identifying vulnerabilities, and implementing necessary changes to prevent future outages.

Unlike incident management's immediate response, problem management takes a proactive approach to ensure long-term stability and prevent similar incidents from occurring. It focuses on strategic investigation and resolution within the framework of ITIL problem management.