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How to Prioritize IT Problems to Maximize Productivity


“If you have ten priorities,” a wise person once said, “then you have no priorities.” Nowhere is this more true than in the world of IT incident management. All IT incidents are a top priority–to the people affected by them. 

But the IT team responding to and resolving those incidents has limited resources and cannot, as a practical matter, provide immediate attention to every incident. They need rules that define what constitutes an actual high-priority incident and how quickly they will commit to resolving the high-priority incidents compared with those that are less urgent.

The Importance of Setting Priorities


As a thought experiment, consider an IT organization that responds to each incident in the order it is reported. Most reported incidents early in the day involve single users: Alice needs a password reset, Bob can’t print to a specific printer, and Carol requires new batteries in her wireless keyboard. The queue fills up with these tickets, and the IT staff addresses them in the order they come in.


Then around lunchtime, two tickets come in at around the same time. The accounting team has lost connection to the ERP system, preventing them from completing the month-end close. Shortly after, the shop floor reported that their manufacturing execution system froze, and all their production lines were at a standstill.


But because the IT team is under strict orders to address incidents in the order they are reported, they don’t get to these more urgent incidents until late in the day. The result is hundreds of worker-hours of lost productivity and millions of dollars in lost revenue.


This scenario is a bit far-fetched, but many IT organizations operate under similar business rules (or no business rules). This organization needs IT process optimization to set its IT incident priorities better. But how?

How to Set IT Incident Priorities

Every organization is different and will have a slightly different approach to setting IT incident priorities, but in general, setting priorities should depend on two parameters:

  • How critical is the affected business process?

  • How widespread is the issue?


Let’s look at these parameters in detail.

Business Criticality

For most for-profit businesses, the most critical business processes directly impact revenue–shipping, service provision, order taking, payment processing, and manufacturing. For other organizations, such as public safety agencies, the ability to take emergency calls and dispatch resources might be considered the most critical process.


Each organization needs to understand its business processes and should be able to rank them in order of criticality. Doing so lets the IT team know what tickets to handle first.

Incident Scope

The second parameter is incident sope. How widespread is the issue? Does it affect only one user, one department, an entire site, or multiple locations?


There are no hard-and-fast rules around categorizing an incident's scope; this will also vary from one organization to the next. It could be based solely on the number of users or some other metric. The point is that each incident should fall into one of a small number (three or four) scope categories.

Result: ONE Simple Severity Score

Considering only these two parameters, assigning one severity value to each incident should be possible. It also means that no single metric drives the severity value. An incident that involves a critical business process, but affects only one user, might get a lower priority than one that affects a less-critical business process but impacts many users.


The severity levels will also vary among organizations, but it also should be a small number, typically 1–4 or 1–6. Each severity level should have a specific target resolution time associated with it. For example, the organization might decide that Severity 1 issues should be resolved within one hour, whereas Severity 4 issues might take three days or more.


With a reliable severity level assigned to each incident, the IT team has a simple rule to organize its activities: Tackle the incidents in priority order, starting with the Severity 1 incidents. The benefits are apparent:

  • Addressing the most critical incidents first gets the most significant number of end users productive again and minimizes the financial or operational impact of the issue.

  • IT resources are allocated intelligently and aren’t tied up in addressing low-impact incidents at the expense of more important ones.

What About VIPs?

What if the CEO has an IT issue? Shouldn’t that automatically get top priority?


Not necessarily. Incidents affecting VIPs should be evaluated using the same business rules as any other incident. So, for example, if the CEO is at a customer site and can’t close a multimillion-dollar deal because she can’t connect on a VPN, that might warrant a high priority because it affects revenue. But if she can’t figure out how to set up a Twitter account, that has a much lower business impact and can wait longer to resolve.


Many organizations consider VIP status and will bump up a VIP ticket in priority versus equal access from a non-VIP user. Again, it’s a business rule that the organization has to formulate and agree upon.

The Importance of System Support for Priority Setting

Just as important as having business rules for setting priorities has a system to determine those priorities automatically.


With a system for IT process optimization, the IT staff doesn’t need to make a judgment call regarding the priority for every ticket. They need only input the parameters, and the system determines the priority level. This reduces cognitive overhead for the IT staff and increases their productivity.


The organization should apply automation in terms of prioritizing the incident within the organization. The organization should develop mechanisms or deploy solutions for the same.


When the IT staff has a rule-based system for setting priorities, they can focus more on solving problems and less on categorizing them. The result is a more efficient IT team, faster resolution of the most impactful IT issues, and happier end users.


Setting priorities is just one way to build an environment where the IT staff can improve their performance. For more ideas, download our white paper, “8 Solutions to Resolve IT Incidents Faster.”

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