I have been thinking lately about success and failure in the IT Department, particularly as it relates to ITIL.

Lots of IT organizations implemented ITSM systems built around the ITIL framework… but the magical results many dreamed of are nowhere to be found.  Folks are still struggling to find the promised productivity and availability gains, and they are frustrated with the additional overhead the new processes introduced.

IT Departments struggle to deliver required availability levels, which erodes the perceived value of the IT Department.  IT projects are completed late and over budget (if they are finished at all), only adding fuel to the fire.

So, that means “ITIL is dead” (or dying) right?

Not so fast….  I do not believe ITIL is the problem.  There are plenty of mature IT organizations making great use of ITIL for improving availability and productivity, as well as any other metrics their Businesses care about.  I have worked regularly with an organization that studies high performing IT shops, the IT Process Institute.  ITPI studies show that effective IT organizations all have in common that they use ITIL or similar processes to manage the flow of work through their teams.

If ITIL is not the problem, what is?

I talk to a lot of business and IT leaders, and if their organizations are struggling to make use of ITIL it is inevitable that the conversation will include these problems.


Do you remember “The 6th Sense” and the famous phrase “I see dead people”?  Well, “I see dead people” who believe that ITIL cannot help them.  To these skeptics, the best that could be said of ITIL is that it is a bunch of meaningless busywork, time spent filling out paperwork instead of getting work done.  At its worst, the skeptic believes, ITIL is a way for management to show IT’s ineffectiveness and justify layoffs or the off-shoring of IT jobs.

Skeptics are so convinced of ITIL’s uselessness that they often actively sabotage the efforts of their organizations to improve by using ITIL.

Inappropriate and Ineffective Application of Processes

I cannot say I understand exactly how or why this has happened… but many people seem to believe ITIL is the complete, all-inclusive, prescriptive authority on how to manage IT.  When people see ITIL this way, it is very easy to create a web of ineffective processes.  IT workers can become so entangled in these processes that they accomplish less and less meaningful work.

This is easiest to describe by an example:  Not long ago, I helped a large IT organization with their ITIL implementation.  Their first attempt at Change Management got completely mired in bureaucracy.  A Change Request to any major system would get so bogged down that it could literally take six months to be approved.

For workers to get work done, they had to game the system.  To ensure they looked like they were following the process, people would write “token” Change Requests for trivial changes that would be likely to be approved with little scrutiny.  Then they would make the real (major) changes to critical systems without any formal plan or approval.

So, the result of this organization’s new Change Management process was that actual performance was reduced because people were avoiding meaningful planning and coordination of changes to avoid getting caught in the red tape.  …not to mention, the skeptics were dancing around gloating about how right they were about ITIL’s uselessness.

The Solution

Believers instead of Skeptics

We need to find the “dead people” people and bring them back to life.  If we have a vision for effective IT Management, we should be able to show skeptics how and why ITIL and other best practices will make them more productive and improve their quality of life.

Regretfully, when someone’s skepticism cannot be replaced by belief, they are toxic and must be removed from the organization so they do not get in the way of their teammates’ success.

Appropriate and Practical Processes

Implementing the right processes in the right order can yield profound results.  If one starts with the right processes, improvement should be nearly immediate.  I think it is also important to understand that every organization needs to create an appropriate ITIL based system for managing work.  You should be judging the success of your ITIL implementation by measurably increased throughput with less human caused downtime.  Anything less means your implementation (not ITIL) has come up short.

There’s also a new IT Management kid in town, the DevOps movement.  My assessment is that DevOps is another refinement of best practices, largely aimed at teams driven by the requirement to release applications from development to production rapidly and reliably.  DevOps, like Visible Ops, seems to be another practical approach to implementing a best practices framework.  Both systems seem very congruent with ITIL to me.

Where to learn more

If you are struggling to make sense of how to implement ITIL processes in an appropriate and Practical way, The Visible Ops Handbook is a great place to start, with its four practical and auditable steps for implementing ITIL.

If you want to learn more about DevOps, have a look at The Phoenix Project:  A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping YourBusiness Win.  I promise it will make you think about how work flows through your team in a way you never have before.