Thursday, 7 October 2021

It’s ITIL, but not as we know it!

You would assume that, giving myself the name of the ‘ITIL Zealot’, I am a big fanboy of everything ITIL and I am … to a point. I am fully aware that ITIL fell somewhat out of favour in the mid-2010s, mainly when organisations, after several years (or decades even), had not yet found the benefits they were hoping for.

From my zealot perspective I would have told you that this was mainly because organisations and people had not ‘implemented’ ITIL correctly. For starters you don’t really implement it at all, ITIL has always been a description of best practices around service management and as such it has always been more behavioural than a thing/product to get and use.

But I have to admit that, by then, ITIL (version 3 at that stage) was not making life easy for itself, focusing on the documentation, flow and terminology of detailed processes. But now there is ITIL 4; and this is not a simple next version that is basically the same thing in a new, shinier coat. No, ITIL 4 is almost brand new, built from the ground up with the modern (digital) organisation in mind and the service management requirements that go with that.

In this article I want to discuss three ‘movements’ in a changing world over the last years, that have made the previous versions of ITIL less practical, and where ITIL 4 has come up with a new approach:

1. It’s more than IT

Now, ITIL has never been about IT (although we do like to make the joke that without IT, ITIL would just be ‘IL(L)') and for years we have used analogies from other service industries to explain the ITIL concepts (such as hotels, restaurants or public transport). But it was born in the IT world and that’s where it gained its traction to become the ‘de-facto’ service management standard (at least in the 1990s and 2000s).

Thus, the success (or failure) of ITIL is directly linked to the ability of the IT staff (who know ITIL) to convey the concepts, terminology and practices in non-IT environments and this is part of the issue. See, in the early 2000s we were still talking about IT alignment to the business and as any mathematician can tell you: 2 lines that are aligned are parallel, but still separated.

So, the movement here is the increased need for organisations to no longer look at IT as a simple, black-box provider of services, but rather as an integrated part of the business, necessary for success. And this view immediately elevates service management to a business discipline and not just one of the ‘dark arts’ used in the IT department.

ITIL 4 embraces this development, and whilst there still is a grounding in IT (and it is highlighted in necessary elements such as the technology practices and concepts like High Velocity IT) all its main concepts, such as the 4 Dimensions, Service Value System and -Chain, Guiding Principles and even most of the Practices, are just as applicable outside of IT than within it (if not more).

OK, there is still the challenge of how you get the business to pay attention to ITIL 4, but once they do, they should easily understand and accept the service management concepts, without feeling it’s an IT derivative.

2. Agile over waterfall

For the second movement we have to go back in time: ITIL v1 (which was never called v1, it was the one, the original) was created in the IT department of a mainframe environment. In those days, changes were large-scale projects and they were big and risky but reasonably well defined. Moving forward a decade and ITIL v2 brings us into the 90s and the LAN/WAN, PC environment but projects were still mostly technical/warranty focussed with little concern about bespoke functionality/utility (the users got whatever IT would give them!). As such projects followed the waterfall method with the emphasis on preparation, definition, design and testing, so that the implementation could happen ‘in one fell swoop’.

Fast forward again to the 2010s and ITIL v3 and we see a number of developments that start undermining the usefulness of the defined, regimented waterfall project approach. Firstly, projects more-and-more involve software and functionality/utility aspects and thus more user/consumer involvement (and that is even before we branch outside of IT as discussed previously). In addition, our environments become more complex with more and more devices, software, interconnections, dependencies, stakeholders etc. All of this makes it much harder to ensure all aspects, requirements and elements are considered in the preparation.

But most importantly, there is a desire to have things available faster (instant gratification) or actually there is a genuine need from the organisation for this speed: decision cycles get shorter and new features need to be available quicker to obtain a greater value to the organisation … even if it is not perfect! And therein lies the biggest difference: the waterfall project approach was based on the philosophy of do it once and do it properly. But this is no longer realistic, so an agile approach embraces the concept of doing ‘something’ quickly, as good as possible (but not perfect) and then iterate and improve from there: speed is more important than perfection (also because perfection is practically impossible).

And ITIL 4 has embraced this too. I could argue that agility and speed were always a part of ITIL (for instance in the use of change management’s minor or standard changes), but now it has been put front and centre, in the Guiding Principles (Progress Iteratively with Feedback, Keep it Simple, Focus on Value) but also in concept such as High Velocity IT, complexity thinking, safety culture, safe-to-fail experimentation and the general approach to perfection vs failure.

3. Heuristic over algorithmic

This neatly brings me to the last movement I want to discuss, which is that everything has become so complicated, fast or rather … unrepeatable. ITIL v1 was mainly to instil best practices in IT staff to ensure there was measured, managed, reliable and repeatable activities (words I have often used in training). This almost eliminated the people-aspects (who were reduced to mere drones following process again and again). This even more so when ITIL v2 moved into the LAN/WAN decentralised, personal computing era where ‘cowboys’ could cause major pain through individual actions.

But with ITIL v3, the aforementioned inclusion of more software/utility/consumer aspects, the increased complexity of the IT infrastructure and -as mentioned- the integration with business services, this is no longer the case. The strict, rigid process approach was no longer working or even desirable. Again, I could argue that ITIL never advocated this meticulous focus on following procedures but alas in many organisations this was how it was interpreted and ‘implemented’.

We’ve already discussed how ITIL 4 has embraced the more agile approaches to work, to progress iteratively. But what is even more significant, in my opinion, is how it also changes the expectation of the people working in a service management environment. In the 4 Dimensions (in Organisation & People) the need for an appropriate culture is discussed, including trust. And there is the safety culture concept I mentioned earlier, and my absolute favourite: intelligent disobedience (breaking/bending the rules but doing so with applied knowledge). Modern, digital service staff is no longer expected to follow predetermined process without question, but they need to be able to assess a (complex) situation and if necessary take a novel, unproven and thus inherently risky course of action in order to provide value, even if this is not perfect (and then use future iterations to further improve on this).

The former, rigid, documented form of working is referred to as ‘algorithmic’ as indeed it follows a predetermined, calculated path. Don’t get me wrong, there is still a place for this, including processes, procedures, checklists and templates, but … more and more we’ll see this kind of work being automated or being replaced with the new way of working which is described as ‘heuristic’. Heuristic activities are used when there is no predetermined path (or when doing the ‘usual thing’ would not provide the desired outcome). In that case we put more onus on the staff, their knowledge, expertise and experience to come up with an alternative, new way forward.


This fits in well with the agile way of working discussed earlier, as well as the increased scope and complexity of the service management space (which makes less things repeatable). VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) is the new normal and new, modern practices need to understand that failure is not only an option but almost a certainty. It is now important to manage the level of failure and the develop the ability to learn from these failures: resilience and adaptability. These traits are not embedded in process and structure but need to be at the heart of the culture, management and behaviours in an organisation.

What this means is that service management, and ITIL 4 specifically as the topic of this article, needs to focus more on people within a service management environment rather than the technology or processes used. Not really much different from ITIL from way back and I certainly have always tried to explain that ITIL is about understanding WHY something should be done, and not necessarily HOW. But now it is defined within the theory (and the certification): we need to understand the 4 Dimensions of an organisation (including the people and culture), we need to know the Guiding Principles (including the Focus on Value and Progress Iteratively) and we need to apply the Practices with a HVIT mindset (a ‘need for speed’), within a safety culture and understand the heuristic approach to achieving outcomes.

It is not really a new approach and it is not even really new for ITIL, but with ITIL 4 it is now made obvious and we all have to approach service management with this in mind. And for many that is quite different from how they looked at ITIL (v3), and that surely is a good thing?

Simon Dorst 
Kinetic IT Pty.Ltd., Australia (