“How do we keep senior managers from disrupting incident responses?” That audience question generated the strongest response last week at my workshop on Incident Command for IT at the fantastic USENIX SREcon18 Americas.

Senior management definitely has a critical role to play in incident response, but as soon as somebody asked that question, the room lit up; it seemed like all 200 people had tales to share about active incident responses that were inadvertently derailed by directors, executives, and other senior managers. It was clear that this was a significant source of frustration for incident responders and incident leaders in the room.

Incident management is about controlling chaos, and senior management can be a significant source of chaos during an incident, usually without meaning to be. Why is this so, and how can senior managers, incident leadership, and responders all work together to avoid this?

Senior management has a legitimate need for timely information about incident responses in progress. But if they simply barge in on the phone bridge or Slack channel that’s being used to coordinate the response, they disrupt the response by creating confusion about who is in charge of the response, which ultimately delays the resolution of the incident. It’s bad enough when the drive-by senior managers are simply asking for information; those requests take on a life of their own, as responders scramble to answer the questions, instead of continuing whatever they were doing at the direction of the incident leadership. It’s even worse when the senior managers start giving orders, usurping the roles of the incident commander and their leadership team; if the senior manager wants to do that, they should explicitly take over as incident commander (assuming they have the appropriate training), but that seldom seems to happen.

Senior managers can avoid this scenario by being aware that their mere presence in an incident response is going to make waves, and therefore being careful about when and where they appear. If they have questions about the incident response, they should address those questions privately to the incident commander, via direct message or other channels. They should not be asking questions of individual responders directly, or in the main communications channel of the response.

Incident commanders can address this issue by recognizing that senior managers have legitimate interests in incident responses, and need to be kept informed. Periodic proactive updates to senior management can go a long way towards filling this information gap. If senior managers can trust that the IC will keep them informed as the response progresses, then they’re less likely to barge in seeking ad hoc updates. It takes time, likely over several incident responses, to build up this trust, but it’s absolutely worth doing.

On larger responses, or within larger organizations, it can be very effective for one senior manager to take on a “liaison” role between the response and the rest of the senior management team. The liaison usually works directly with the incident commander, passing information along to the rest of the senior management team and representing their concerns to the incident commander. PagerDuty’s open source incident response guide has a good writeup of the internal liaison role.

Individual responders have a role to play here, too. They need to remember that the incident commander is in charge of the incident response, and avoid the urge to defer to wandering senior management. When you’re part of an organized incident response, you’re operating under different rules and norms than day-to-day, within the structure of a temporary org chart created just for this incident. If the senior manager asking questions or giving orders isn’t part of this particular incident response, then you need to politely but firmly redirect them to the incident commander, rather than dropping your IC-assigned tasks in order to respond to the not-involved senior manager.

Senior managers as a group need to establish and monitor norms for each other, in this area. It’s tough for a responder to tell an SVP “I’m sorry, sir, but you should be talking to the incident commander, not me”, even when that’s the right thing to do; the responder shouldn’t be put in that position. A quiet word of advice from a fellow executive who sees this happening, reminding their wayward peer that they shouldn’t meddle in active responses, can go a long way.

Senior managers also have a very important role to play in supporting the organization’s overall incident management program. They need to make sure that the plans get developed, the responders get trained, the exercises get carried out, the responses get reviewed, the postmortems get written, and the action items get followed up on. Explicit and visible support for incident response from senior management is essential for developing and maintaining an effective incident management capability.


If you want to learn more about this and many other incident management topics, I’m teaching a Mastering Outages One-Day Class in the San Francisco Bay Area on Friday 18 May 2018. You can save $100 when you register with discount code “disrupt”, plus save an additional $100 if you register before 16 April 2018.