Improve Incident Response by Uniting Teams

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Incident response is crucial to customer service. Addressing problems effectively can make a big difference in a user’s experience, but coordinating across departments can make it challenging to implement fixes, mainly when communication breakdowns occur or bottlenecks. If departments aren’t on the same page, then software problems become exacerbated. Even when communication is good, different processing rates and work capacities in different departments can create bottlenecks.

But there’s a practical philosophy capable of unifying departments through its cultivation of incident response collaboration. It’s called DevOps.

DevOps, a combination of the word development and operations, is a collaborative approach to building, deploying, and managing software that unifies teams from customer-facing business analysis to development to deployment to maintenance to operations. To achieve maximum potential, DevOps practitioners always include incident management to coordinate response efforts through a seamless repair method. Applying DevOps fosters synergy between departments, cuts down on repair times, reduces wasted effort and chaotic responses, and delivers a better customer experience.

Let’s take a look at how to apply DevOps in incident response teams, including the phases it prescribes for incident management, the perks it offers technical and non-technical teams, and DevOps incident management best practices.

Applying DevOps in Incident Response Teams: Five Phases of Incident Management

A DevOps approach to incident management may seem familiar since it emulates the standard steps used in incident management. The most significant shift it makes is in involving the development team from the onset, obscuring department boundaries, and distributing work to qualified team members from the beginning.

With incidents handled by the right people from start to finish, an organization establishes predictability and consistency, and teams achieve fast response times. DevOps teams work in the following five-phase cycle: detection, response, resolution, analysis, and readiness. Here’s how it works:

  • Detection: DevOps operates on the principle that incidents are inevitable, so preparedness is an ongoing process. For those not used to it, expecting problems and preparing for them can seem like a strange idea. Collaborative teams assess the system for potential weaknesses and blind spots while planning possible solutions. This process is referred to as post-incident management. This is when monitoring, alerting, and procedures are designed and implemented. Detection methods should regularly evolve to cut down on excessive alerting and provide more accurate diagnostics while calling out the true trigger events that require a fast response with no speed bumps.
  • Response: Sometimes, the on-call engineer isn’t the most qualified person to address a particular incident. That’s why a DevOps system establishes a network of developers who can collaborate with response teams to both route issues to the appropriate parties and know that the right party is on the case. Organizations use problem management in DevOps to quickly identify problems, redirect them to the proper team members, and collaborate on problem-solving incidents that require multiple perspectives.
  • Resolution: Instead of calling on an engineer who needs to familiarize themselves with the code before tackling an incident, sending them on to the originators of the code can expedite remediation. A developer that is regularly involved with the source code can look at an incident alert and isolate the area of code in question without needing to spend a lot of time reviewing the code. Plus, if they need to escalate the problem by getting collaborative help, they’ll be able to do so quickly.
  • Analysis: Once DevOps resolves an incident, a post-mortem process begins. Teams can come together to assess where the incident originated, related metrics, and learning moments. Even with quick fixes, reviewing the incident in a post-mortem process can help teach other team members, cut down on time needed to implement similar resolutions in the future, and inform the detection phase. Incidence management with DevOps wraps back on itself, with every new problem found and fixed driving a feedback loop into the detection phase to make for better responses and prevention in the future.
  • Readiness: Once DevOps resolves and analyzes an incident, the team can look at the system as a whole and decide whether they need to tweak any of the phases for future incidents, such as by reassigning team members to new problems or developing more efficient escalation strategies. Once this process finishes, the loop is complete and begins all over again.

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When implemented well, an incident management process influenced by DevOps will grow and adapt. As teams collaborate, they will strengthen their incident response, learn from their mistakes, and foster a positive work environment.

Benefits of Uniting Technical and Non-Technical Teams During Incident Response

Though technical teams are responsible for resolving an issue in the code, non-technical teams have incident-induced responsibilities of their own. Whether that’s answering tickets, reassuring and supporting angry users, keeping communications open and informing everyone on incident status, or responding to complaints on the internet, these teams handle essential steps while engineers diagnose problems and issue fixes.

Both groups have essential roles in incident response, yet they rarely meet together to discuss incidents. Instead of collaborating before, during, and after incidents, each group ends up with its version of a post-mortem assessment. Then, without communicating or building a better future response, they move on.

When technical and non-technical teams remain separate from each other, internal issues can also occur. The consumer-facing crisis turns into an internal one, resulting in miscommunication, resentment, and broken channels. Inviting multi-team dialogue before incidents occur is a strategic way to prepare for future events and unify the incident response across the board. Here are a few benefits that can come with uniting technical and non-technical teams in incident response management:

Learn From Each Other’s Successes and Mistakes

Bringing teams together means exposing them to diverse perspectives. All ideas that lead to faster, less impactful, less expensive incident responses are good! Promoting collaboration can initiate conversations that may not have happened if these groups remained in their silos. It can lead to response optimization over the entire process. These discussions can bring new ideas to the forefront, cultivate multi-department camaraderie and knowledge, and allow teams to learn from each other’s successes and failures.

Discover and Prevent Any Holes in the Process

Asking technical and non-technical teams to walk through an incident from start to finish can help them discover any holes in the incident response process and prevent them from impacting users. No team handles every step of the incident response from start to finish, so outlining the response timeline can help ferret out weaknesses in the system. When you inform team members about and invest them in the entire process, companies can foster multi-dimensional thinking that breaks department bubbles and improves the system as a whole.

Collecting data on what happened, when it happened, and what happened next is a key way to find process holes and bottlenecks. Data drives the incident walk-through. Building future responses from the facts and just the facts keeps tempers cool and helps focus everyone on solutions. Always remember to be hard on the data, soft on the people, and to operate with integrity.

Create a United Front That Allows You to Communicate Clearly

If customer support and marketing aren’t prepared to address an ongoing incident, customer services are impacted. Without a clear understanding of what’s going on, anyone may make assumptions, backtrack statements, or escalate frustration. All of this negativity could be diffused if there were plans to help communicate the progress engineers make. By looping in non-technical teams, companies can put on a united front that allows precise, timely, and consistent communication across all channels, building customer trust and confidence.

Build Trust Across Teams

It’s easy to draw lines in the sand when you only see your side of the story. By opening channels between technical and non-technical teams, you expose them to their coworkers’ common problems and day-to-day struggles, which can build empathy across departments.

Greater empathy can result in deepened trust and transparency, establishing a culture that boosts morale and team spirit. The Center for Creative Leadership even found that empathy, a crucial part of emotional intelligence, is positively related to job performance.

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DevOps Incident Management Best Practices

As you adopt the DevOps cultural philosophy, you can use tips to smooth transitions and promote team buy-in. It can mean the difference between a successful connection across departments and tension among developers, operators, and non-technical personnel. Here are the best practices for applying a DevOps approach to incident management:

Use a Blended Approach

One-dimensional monitoring is insufficient for keeping tabs on your software. By using a blended approach to incident surveillance, you can gather better intelligence and gain more insight into the detection phase of incident management. For instance, a combination of Static, Log Analysis, and Time Series analysis will turn an insufficient monitoring approach into a dynamic one that can diversify data collection. Just be sure that you don’t let the data morph into an alerting monster. Too many beeps in a day, and you could find your engineers experiencing alert fatigue.

Focus on Business Objectives

When information comes pouring in, it can be challenging to decipher which bits of data are essential or even exciting yet irrelevant. Communicating business objectives with development teams can clarify the difference. When developers can look at their application through a business lens, they can capitalize on input channels outside their monitoring systems, such as social media, support tickets, and even revenue data.

This multidisciplinary approach can help engineers align their builds, fixes, and updates with company-wide goals instead of department-specific ones. This approach can also help everyone target the highest-priority data relative to each incident, which can then be communicated with non-technical incident responders.

Keep Everyone on the Same Page

DevOps is a powerful ally as it fosters collaboration and communication. The five-phase approach doesn’t make much of an impact if miscommunication persists, so persistence and consistency are critical to making changes stick. Scheduling regular meetings and sending consistent email updates are some great ways to keep everyone on the same page.

Many organizations also provide a central collaboration channel that everyone uses to put out fires, such as on Slack or Jabber. This centralizes incident response and keeps a time-stamped record that team members can refer to during post-mortems. Don’t expect your teams to transform into instant collaborators overnight, of course. The key to change is building the right culture. Take away the guesswork and designate the frequency and pathways for partnerships.

Use Common Terminology

In technical fields, jargon, acronyms, and obscure technical terms are standard. But using industry-specific vernacular can be confusing at best and alienating at worst for other departments. Since DevOps incident management practices revolve around interdisciplinary partnerships, it’s best to stick to common terminology that everyone understands. When technical terms have to be used, establishing a common glossary lowers frustrations both for engineering staff (who need to explain words less often) and non-technical staff (who aren’t left in the dark in a discussion). This levels the playing field for everyone involved in incident management while fostering teamwork and mutual understanding.

Invite All Involved Parties to Post-Mortems

When you invite all involved parties to post-mortems, there is more opportunity to learn from an incident. Inviting all participants to the table can open up valuable discussions and optimize systems. Keeping these post-mortems blameless should also be a priority. Asking people into a room to point out failures and flaws will never fix broken systems, but using interpersonal communication strategies can foster a spirit of growth and understanding, allowing participants to let their guard down and engage in growth mindsets. Again, be hard on the data but soft on the people.

Getting Started With Applying DevOps to Incident Management

Now that we’ve covered the basics of DevOps in the context of incident management, let’s look at some steps to starting implementation:

1. Schedule a Meeting With All Incident Responders

Team collaborations are an absolute priority, so teeing off a new DevOps initiative should start with bringing all involved parties together. This meeting is meant to be preventative instead of post-mortem, and it can help you plan responses to potential incidents. Ask each party to provide their current incident response plans so they can exchange them. This way, everyone learns how the current systems work — and if anyone doesn’t have an incident response plan, that’s a great place for improvement.

Open up a discussion about any potential gaps or holes that come up and how to address them. This is also an excellent time for teams to provide insight into weaknesses they see from their end and communicate any questions or concerns.

2. Create a Well-Defined Incident Outline

Now that everyone has a sense of how incident management is currently set up, ask the group to create a well-defined, company-wide incident outline. Detail the roles team members play in the response outline and the order in which things should occur. This outline should highlight chains of command and incident contingencies. By the end, the departments should have a new system in place to tackle the next incident.

3. Develop a Catch-All Response

Another opportunity for collaboration is to develop a catch-all incident response in the event of an unexpected situation. By creating a template to answer or automate a response to unforeseen incidents, responders can form a united front and eradicate any inefficiency that could stem from either lack of communication or miscommunication. When everyone knows the catch-all response to an outlying event, they’re able to stay calm and implement the incident outline they’ve established.

4. Schedule a Post-Mortem

One meeting won’t be enough to fine-tune the systems the teams will develop. They will need to continue to move through the five-phase loop as incidents occur and learn from new obstacles or unforeseen potholes in the system. One way to ensure future process improvements is to schedule a post-mortem. The main objectives of a successful post-mortem should be:

  • Focus on learning and data: Stick to the facts and the available data. Don’t muddy the waters with what-ifs and should-haves and help team members draw lessons from the incident instead. Assigning blame won’t change what’s been done, but discerning a lesson from the event could prevent it from happening again.
  • Require objectivity: It’s easy to get emotional during an incident response. Remind team members to remain objective when they assess each other, as well as themselves.
  • Encourage participation: Encourage everyone to share their insights and perspectives during a post-mortem meeting. If you notice powerful personalities in the room, engage with those more reserved and see what they have to share. Involve everyone involved in the incident and be sure that every department is represented and able to offer their perspective.

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A post-mortem that ends without a plan of action was just commiserating, not action. Task teams to create a list of actionable items to be used to enhance the incident response system and make it more efficient and resilient.

5. Choose a DevOps Incident Management System

Incident Management Systems for DevOps are specialized programs designed to help response teams move through the incident cycle. These tools automatically manage internal and external events through robust programming that can rapidly automate critical tasks and keep things running at all times.

Handling software incidents requires speed and efficiency that can exceed human capabilities, so technology steps in to meet high standards and increased demands. There are several choices available to companies looking for the right tools to implement DevOps. Here is a list of popular Incident Management Systems:

  • ServiceNow
  • PagerDuty
  • OpsGenie
  • VictorOps
  • Jira Service Desk
  • Fresh Service

With a specialized tool to help you automate alerts, monitor software, escalate incidents, and store important data, to name a few, the task of training your technical and non-technical staff to use DevOps becomes a lot easier.

These tools can also help collect data about what happened to drive future incident responses. They all collect key data such as what happened, when it happened, who was involved, and what happened next. Having data-driven insights from multiple sources makes everything easier.

Get Support for Adopting DevOps From Business Transformation Institute

Adopting DevOps can be an overwhelming undertaking, which is why the Business Transformation Institute (BTI) offers companies training and support in all aspects of DevOps implementation. We specialize in process improvement and support and are only interested in measurable results. When we partner with your company, we want to enable you to work faster, more securely, and more efficiently while also fostering happier customers, managers, and developers.

We know a thing or two about DevOps environments because we live them ourselves. We develop DevOps-focused products, and our staff includes certified DevOps Institute consultants and trainers. We’ve been teaching these methods since 2006, and we are one of the U.S. Intelligence Community’s preferred DevOps consultants. Whether you need training or capability analysis, assessment, and improvement, BTI has a service to help you reach your goals through DevOps!

Ready to start? To learn more about how BTI can help your company adopt DevOps, contact us today!

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