How ITIL Differentiates Problems and Incidents

Students in ITIL® Foundation classes often find it challenging to differentiate between incidents and problems. To address this issue and offer clarification, this blog will identify the differences between incidents and problems, how they are related, and why it matters.

What is an Incident?

According to ITIL, an incident is an unplanned interruption to a service or a degradation in the quality of a service. What often determines the classification of something as an incident is whether or not the service level agreement (SLA) was breached. However, ITIL allows for raising an incident even before an SLA has been breached in order to limit or prevent impact.

In layman’s terms, an incident is the representation of an outage.

What is a Problem?

According to ITIL, a problem is the root cause of one or more incidents. Problems can be raised in response to one or more incidents, or they can be raised without the existence of a corresponding incident.

In layman’s terms, a problem is the representation of the cause or potential cause or one or more outages.

What is the Relationship Between Incidents and Problems?

Generally speaking, the relationship between the two is that one problem is the cause of one or more incidents. However, it is possible to have an incident (or group of incidents) that is caused by more than one problem.

Why Does ITIL Distinguish Between Incidents and Problems?

The point of distinguishing between incidents and problems is the same as separating cause and effect. Problems are the cause, and incidents are the effect.

ITIL encourages organizations to distinguish between these things because the two are often treated and resolved differently. Addressing an incident simply means that whatever service was impacted has been temporarily restored. It does not mean that the incident will not recur at some time in the future. When I say “temporarily,” keep in mind that could mean one minute or 10 years. The point is that a resolution to an incident is not permanent.

Problems, however, are the cause of incidents. We might use different techniques to identify the root cause of a problem and ultimately resolve that problem. When a resolution occurs, change management is invoked because addressing root causes often entails some amount of risk.

Effective incident management ensures that as a service provider you are able to keep the promises you made in your SLAs by providing a mechanism to quickly restore service when it’s necessary. Problem management ensures that as a service provider you are able to reactively respond to incidents so that they don’t recur and proactively prevent incidents from happening.

These are separate processes because they often require different skill sets and activities. Incident management wants to quickly restore service in line with any SLAs that are in place whereas problem management wants to eliminate the root causes of incidents. Sometimes to properly address a problem, a service provider must cause or extend an existing outage.

Our Solution

Students apply problem management process and techniques based on their specific workplace experiences in our Mastering Problem Management course. This non-certification, exercise-driven learning approach gives learners the tools they need for real world ITIL application.

In this article

Join the Conversation

1 comment

  1. Lee Tappin Reply

    Thank you for the easy to understand example to help distinguish an incident vs. a problem.
    I have been tasked to deliver a talk around problem management at the end of this month, for implementation shortly after having recently passed the ITIL v3 foundation course.(Did v2 some years ago but find V3 much improved)
    I am currently the change manager and have spent 5 months bringing that to an acceptable standard.
    Regards