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The Five Stages of Incident Response 01 Dec 2020
infra devops

Training engineers to own their infrastructure can be challenging. It is important to help them recognize the five stages of incident response, because only then can system healing begin.

  1. Denial - The first reaction is denial. In this stage, individuals believe the diagnosis is somehow mistaken, and cling to a false, preferable reality. “This isn’t an incident” “This lag will recover soon
  2. Anger - When the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue, they become frustrated, especially at proximate individuals. Certain psychological responses of a person undergoing this phase would be: “Who deployed this crap?” “Why would this happen during my on-call?
  3. Bargaining - The third stage involves the hope that the individual can avoid an incident. Usually, the negotiation for extended uptime is made in exchange for reformed development practices. “Maybe our users will stop accessing this endpoint” “If this can hold on just a little longer, we can deploy a fix tomorrow!
  4. Depression - During the fourth stage, the individual despairs at the recognition of the failure.
  5. Acceptance - In this last stage, individuals embrace the inevitable outage and begin to react, occasionally even following the runbooks which had been previously defined for just this type of scenario.

More seriously, without adequate documentation, drills, and training, most engineers will not do the right thing during incidents, and may even exacerbate them. There is nothing worse than a SEV3 becoming a SEV1 because the engineers responding rushed to judgement and in a panic hit all the buttons before understanding the problems they were facing.

I made a comment on Twitter recently that Scribd has had the most mature incident response processes of any company that I have worked for. Still, there is tons of room for improvement, and incident response is a constant topic of discussion and focus.