Incident updates, interruptions and the 30 minute window

For most companies Incident Commander or Incident Manager is not a specific job, it’s a role you may take on when something has gone, often horribly, wrong and you need to quickly unite an adhoc group into a team to resolve it. The incident commander should be the point of contact, and source of truth, about your incident and to do that successfully they’ll need to be updated and kept informed about what’s happening. Depending on how experienced they are in the role this can be a very light touch experience or it can feel like being constantly nagged to put the washing away while someone burns money nearby.

I’ve been involved in a fair few incidents over the years and one of the best approaches I’ve seen to handling updates and interruptions was from someone who had an amazing internal clock; or a watch we never noticed. When handling an incident he’d essentially give himself a 30 minute, reset-able, window of time. Once he’d been given the initial introduction to the incident he’d step back, handle the communication and anything else the incident responders has asked for and wait for about 30 minutes.

If no one gave him any new information or status updates he’d consider it an invitation to interrupt and ask what was going on. Once he’d been updated he’d move back and let the team run with the problem. If someone gave him an update before the 30ish minutes were up he’d reset his timer, leave you alone and try to get whatever you’d asked for. I don’t know if it was just a well chosen period based on experience or the limit of his patience but 30 minutes was often enough to stop people rabbit holing while the fires were raging.

Once I’d left the team he often managed incidents for and became one of his internal customers I began to notice that everyone in his area developed the subconscious habit of delivering their status updates every 25 minutes or so, even when he wasn’t the incident manager for a specific incident. I never discovered if this was all a deliberate attempt to set the culture he wanted or he was just being himself but as someone handling an incident I always appreciated the time and predictability of his involement. Thanks to LinkedIn and Twitter I could probably track him down and ask but I’ve always liked the idea it was just him being himself.