How ITIL Changed IT in Sometimes Painful Ways

by Tom Godden | on

IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) has changed IT for the worse.

OK, now that I have your attention, let me be fair: ITIL has benefited many aspects of IT (e.g., help desks, infrastructure management, service delivery, etc.) by bringing structure, standards, and consistent, repeatable processes to what was previously a free-for-all. The problem is that IT leaders, myself included, have applied this same rigorous, inflexible, bureaucratic ticketing mindset into areas of IT where it does not belong, principally application development. We have created a divide between “the Business” and IT, perpetuating a lack of customer focus.

To be clear, I believe ITIL is not only useful but also crucial to running a highly available, secure, and compliant IT organization. But it has fostered a mindset that overtakes everything in IT, which is a mistake.

In this blog post, I explain why I think the inappropriate use of ITIL has damaged the relationship between IT and the rest of the enterprise and how it should be used in the current IT landscape.

The Unfulfilled Promise of ITIL

Developed in the 1980s by the UK government, ITIL aims to streamline and improve IT service delivery. It is a widely recognized framework of best practices for IT service management. ITIL has evolved and gained popularity beyond the public sector, becoming a globally adopted framework for IT service management in various industries.

ITIL’s purpose is to provide organizations with comprehensive guidelines and practices for effectively managing IT services by establishing standardized processes across the entire service lifecycle, from strategy and design to transition, operation, and continual service improvement.

Sounds pretty good. What’s gone wrong?

Immovable Object vs. Unstoppable Force

ITIL is designed to improve service quality, enhance efficiency, and reduce risks, so it focuses on standardization and consistency. While this approach promotes uniformity, it is anything but agile and responsive. Today’s modern business is all about agility, speed, adaptability, and the ability to innovate—all things ITIL lacks. ITIL supporters may argue nothing precludes it from operating in an agile, responsible, and innovative manner. But ITIL certainly does not foster those behaviors either, and as I have seen throughout my career, ITIL’s ambitions often fall short.

There’s a Ticket for That

A central mechanism of ITIL is the ticketing process. When it was first designed, we needed better control over what, why, and when things happened, and we still do. Ticketing itself is not bad, but this ticket-based mindset has inadvertently contributed to a distant relationship between the Business and IT.

The result is no dialogue between IT and the Business—just open a ticket, request what you want, and IT delivers it. This sounds like a great idea: “We operate in service to the Business’s needs. The Business tells us what it needs, and we build it”. It doesn’t work; it’s impersonal and detached from the real-time needs and priorities of the organization. ITIL has shifted IT’s focus to resolving tickets rather than understanding the broader context or organizational impact. My colleague Mark Schwartz dives into many of these topics in his book A Seat at the Table .

I ask customers all the time, “Who is the Business?” IT is an integral part of most modern organizations. It helps run operations, manage finances, and deliver products and solutions. Most organizations would cease to operate without IT. So why do we think IT is not part of the Business? We don’t say “the Business and Marketing” or “the Business and Finance”. We’ve done this to ourselves; we’ve used ITIL to separate ourselves from the Business, lose our seat at the table, and then wonder why.

Modern agile organizations must change the ITIL mindset, get past the ticketing systems approach, and engage directly with stakeholders around shared business outcomes. Keep the ticketing system but use it where it belongs—to manage incidents, perform change management, and capture service requests for things like software installation, account access, password resets, and hardware provisioning.

Red Tape Everywhere

ITIL’s failings are compounded by its complex, inefficient user experience. It addressed many issues that plagued the early days of enterprise IT by preventing individual emails with service requests, providing standard operating procedures for responding to issues, and providing consumers with predictability and higher service levels. But over time its focus on documentation and meticulous processes has overwhelmed IT departments with paperwork, wasted significant time and resources on documentation, and changed management and compliance by taking focus away from delivering real value to the Business.

Another contributing factor to this bureaucracy is the heavy reliance on formal authorization mechanisms like Change Advisory Boards (CABs), which I think fail to achieve their intended purpose, instead adding more work with few benefits. When was the last time your CAB declined a release? Mine almost never did, but we kept holding meetings because the process told us we should, and we had no better options.

It is important to note that while excessive bureaucracy can be detrimental, a certain level of structure and process control is necessary to avoid chaos and ensure consistency and quality in IT service management. Finding the right balance between flexibility and control is key to optimizing ITIL implementation and achieving desired outcomes. Consider implementing a tiered approach. For critical processes, maintain a higher level of control to minimize risks. For less critical processes, allow more flexibility to encourage innovation and efficiency. Couple this with a governance structure that includes representatives from different business units and IT. This ensures that decisions about flexibility and control are made collaboratively, considering all perspectives.

Internal Priorities over Value Delivery

The means become the ends with ITIL; its emphasis on process adherence and operational efficiency focuses on processes rather than value delivery. Many organizations become hyperfocused on following the defined processes, viewing them as the primary measures of success instead of actively seeking opportunities to create and deliver value.

Impediment to Innovation

Innovation thrives in an environment that encourages experimentation, agility, and risk-taking. But ITIL focuses on promoting a culture of stability and control and consequently discourages the exploration of new ideas and technologies through its slow and methodical process. ITIL’s rigid processes and risk-averse culture deter the exploration and adoption of emerging technologies and ideas with the potential to drive business growth. In an environment that values stability above all else , there may be little room for experimentation and the pursuit of new opportunities. Innovating is possible within ITIL (it even calls out a continuous improvement process), but it falls short of the organic rapid innovation we try to enable today through Agile and two-pizza teams.

Applying ITIL to a Modern, Digitally Transformed Organization

ITIL has had its successes, and many of its shortcomings are not inherent to its framework but its application (or misapplication). To succeed in today’s digitally transformed world, organizations should broaden their views on ITIL to include the following:

  1. Foster a Culture of Collaboration

When innovation and new solution development are involved, organizations should avoid getting wrapped up in tickets and isolation with ITIL and consider adopting the two-pizza team model as a transformative approach to drive innovation, collaboration, and agility. By forming small, focused teams, you can unlock the full potential of your employees, fostering a sense of ownership, accountability, and entrepreneurial spirit. The model promotes efficient decision-making, streamlined communication, and a customer-centric mindset, enabling teams to rapidly respond to market changes and deliver exceptional value. Embracing the two-pizza team model empowers your organization to break down silos, foster a culture of innovation, and create an environment where individuals can thrive and contribute to the success of your business. You can read more about how to implement this model in my blog post, “Two Pizza Teams Are Just the Start.”

Remember: Ticketing works best to manage incidents, perform change management, and capture service requests. Do not allow this type of thinking to permeate IT’s approach to innovating and developing new solutions.

  1. Embrace a Customer-Centric Mindset

Prioritize customer value. By actively engaging with customers, understanding their needs, and incorporating customer feedback, ITIL practices can be adapted to prioritize customer satisfaction and value. This can involve tailoring ITIL processes to address specific customer requirements, implementing effective service level agreements (SLAs) that align with customer expectations, and regularly measuring customer satisfaction to drive continual service improvement.

To succeed, you need to shift the focus of ITIL from internal processes to customer-centric outcomes. Identify customer requirements and align ITIL practices accordingly. Incorporate feedback loops, user stories, and customer journey mapping to ensure that IT services and processes are designed to deliver value and meet customer expectations.

  1. Insist on Automation and Self-Service to Move beyond a Reactive, Ticket-Based Approach

Leverage automation and CI/CD practices to streamline development, testing, and deployment processes. Automation helps ensure consistency, speed, and reliability while reducing manual errors, but it can also promote a customer-centric approach by empowering customers to obtain the services they need quickly and conveniently while reducing manual intervention and improving overall efficiency.

I encourage organizations to apply lean principles to identify and eliminate waste within their product development process. Use value stream mapping to visualize and streamline workflows, identify bottlenecks, and optimize the flow of value to customers. You can learn more in my blog “Go Faster! But How?”

  1. Create a Swear Jar

I had a swear jar growing up. Whenever I said something bad, I had to put money in the jar. Apply the same process when someone says “the Business”—make them throw some money in the swear jar. It sounds simple and maybe a little foolish, but you need to change the mindset of keeping the Business at arm’s reach. You are in this together. Act like it.

Conclusion

ITIL has been a double-edged sword in the IT world. It has brought structure, consistency, and predictability to various aspects of IT, such as help desks and infrastructure management. But it has also negatively affected the IT-Business relationship, leading to impersonal interactions, a lack of genuine customer focus, and impediments to software development and innovation.

As organizations embark on digital transformations and face the demands of a dynamic business landscape, it is crucial to evolve the ITIL mindset by fostering collaboration, embracing agile methodologies, and prioritizing customer-centric outcomes. The lessons learned from the past, combined with a willingness to adapt and innovate, will allow organizations to harness the best of both worlds—leveraging the strengths of ITIL while embracing the agility, customer focus, and innovation demanded by the modern age. In doing so, IT can become an integral partner in achieving business success.