Impact + Urgency = Priority

September 30th, 2015 | Posted by Don Boylan in Incident Management | ITIL | Problem Management

Impact-UrgencyThis may seem a little ITIL 101 for some of you, but I think there is value in covering some of ITIL’s basic concepts in detail. ITIL asserts that you Prioritize issues (Incidents, Problems, Changes, etc.), and work on the highest Priority issues first. You then work your way down the list of issues until you get to the lowest Priority, but Priority is not derived from a single source. Priority is determined by the intersection of two other values: Impact and Urgency.

The concept of Priority being calculated by setting a ticket’s Impact and Urgency fields is so well adopted that I would argue most ticketing systems follow this convention. How Impact and Urgency determine Priority is quite often configurable in the ticketing system’s administration panels and most often follows this schema:


Priority Urgency-1 Urgency-2 Urgency-3
Impact-1 1 2 3
Impact-2 2 3 4
Impact-3 3 4 5

In the example above, Priority 1 issues can only be generated if both the Impact and Urgency are set to level 1.  Priority 5 issues can only be generated by Impact 3 and Urgency 3 issues.

The problem with this schema is that it results in 5 levels of Priority. If you do as ITIL recommends and work on Priority 1 issues first, and then Priority 2, and then Priority 3, etc. then there is a very good chance you will never get to Priority 5 issues.

A more balanced table might be:


Priority Urgency-1 Urgency-2 Urgency-3
Impact-1 1 1 2
Impact-2 1 2 3
Impact-3 2 3 3


This example only results in 3 Priority levels and might be easier to adopt by the organization.

Regardless of how you calculate Priority based on Impact and Urgency, everyone must agree on the definition of Impact and Urgency. Surprisingly, there can be quite a bit of disagreement on the definition of these terms.

The degree to which the business is affected by the issue. For Incidents, it can often be measured in terms of the importance of the service and the degree to which the business is affected. A good example would be email being completely down. I think everyone can agree email is a top tier application for most organizations, and it being down is pretty impactful. I would consider email down an Impact 1 type event.

The speed in which the issue needs to be addressed. If email goes down on Saturday morning for a company that does zero work over the weekend, maybe the Urgency isn’t as high as if email goes down on Monday morning at 10:00am.

Let’s look at two scenarios to dig further into Impact and Urgency.

Scenario 1:
Let’s say that the company’s payday is every Saturday with the payroll batch job running Friday night. On Friday morning the Payroll group discovers that the application that runs the batch job won’t launch.

What is the Impact? I’m going to be pretty pissed off when my bank account shows me I that have no money when I want to go out partying Saturday night. And this affects every employee of the company. Definitely high Impact.

What is the Urgency? The clock is ticking on this one folks. You might have 10 hours to get whatever is wrong fixed. I would call this high Urgency too.

Scenario 2:
Again, payday is every Saturday with the payroll batch job running Friday night. Sunday morning the Payroll group discovers that the application that runs the batch job won’t launch.

What is the Impact? It is the same as in scenario 1. This is a tier 1 application that affects everyone in the company.

What is the Urgency? Maybe not so high. You have at least 5 days to get it working. I think we can let this slide a bit and not have an “all hands on deck” situation.

But what happens if it still won’t launch on Wednesday? Or if it still broken on Thursday? The point I’m trying to make is that Impact and Urgency need to be constantly reevaluated for accuracy. As deadlines approach, the Priority should be adjusted accordingly.

Sometimes when we get the initial call about an Incident, we open a low Impact, low Urgency ticket, but as more information becomes available we find out that the Impact and Urgency need to be adjusted. This is the natural way of discovering high Priority Incidents. The first reports can just be the tip of the iceberg for a massive issue.

One last thing. ITIL says that you should take all your tickets and work on the issues in order from highest Priority to lowest Priority, but don’t be a slave to your Priority. If you are working on a massive Priority 1 ticket that will take 5 hours to fix and someone comes to you with a Priority 3 ticket that only you can address and will only take 2 minutes, take a break from the Priority 1 Incident and do it. Two minutes tacked on to a 5 hour project is miniscule and the 2 minutes you spend could make someone else’s life a lot easier.


You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 You can leave a response, or trackback.

7 Responses

  • James says:

    so what about a P1 for an individual user? If a user can’t log into their computer and do any work it’s High Impact to them, and high urgency. Yet places I work won’t raise P1s if the issue is only affecting an individual.

    • Don Boylan says:

      Please remember that organizations define P1 issues differently. Although some organizations will open P1 Incidents for a single user, most organizations don’t simply on a cost/benefit calculation. A P1 issue typically involve three or more IT individuals (Service Desk, Incident Manager, and several IT specialists) and as such will cost several thousands of dollars in IT spend at a minimum (possibly into the 10 of thousands of dollars if the issue extends for multiple days).

      Now if the individual affected is the company’s President or Chief Financial Officer and that person is unable to perform their work, they might make an exception, but again it comes down to a cost/benefit calculation. Sometimes organizations will allow Incidents to raise to the P1 level if the person affected is someone who controls the annual budget for IT. Again, they are simply making a cost/benefit analysis of “If I fix this issue quickly, will I have a better chance of getting money for next year’s budget”.

      For further information on how IT organizations define response to Incidents, please see my articles on Tiers – Tyranny of Tiers and What Tier Is It?


  • James says:

    Thanks Don, I agree completely with your statement.

  • John Ward says:

    Thanks for the article Don. I actually think this is a very complicated and multi-dimensional area, particularly when setting up a new system to handle priorities in a more automated way.

    Every time I’ve assessed this requirement within incident management for clients when scoping a new ITSM tool, it’s always come back to the service desk rep taking the judgement call. It makes moving towards more automation actually very tricky.

    You’ve mentioned that some companies don’t actually like to automatically set P1 incidents, or at least they don’t like users to be able to raise these themselves without at least some sort of triage process by service desk and Major Incident Management.
    In my mind, to make this work, you need 3 elements to the priority calculation:

    1. Business systems priority (only a top level will allow a P1 Incident Priority to be made), set in the catalogue. If stuff is on fire, what get’s brought up first?
    2. Impact – does it effect me, the team, everyone, some customers, all customers?
    3. Urgency – what’s the proximity in time?

    Great article thanks for posting 🙂

    John Ward

    IT Service Management Consultant
    Bristol – UK

    • Don Boylan says:

      I completely agree. Most organizations that I have been with call this the Tier of the Service or system. Setting the Tier can be part of defining whether the Service or system is of enough importance to allow it to have a P1 or P2 Incident raised against it. I do know from experience that trying to define a Service or systems’ Tier is a political minefield as I discussed in this article:


  • Greetings! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and say I really enjoy reading through your articles.

    Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that deal
    with the same subjects? Thank you!

Leave a Reply to Don Boylan Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *