The cult of ITIL

ITIL is the major framework for IT Service Management.

ITIL-V3

It comprises 5 books of Shakespearian English flanked by huge amounts of models, figures and diagrams. It is unwieldy and complex, leaving the reader in awe of its awesome.

chart-itil-v3-v1.9

ITIL has thousands of followers organized in country chapters of the IT Service Management Forum. Piles of papers are written every year, ITIL projects abound, and it remains a huge industry with vendors eager to leech off the ignorance of customers. And while organizations experience real IT challenges, they all too often jump to the conclusion that ITIL is the savior.

  • Problem with Peter.. Peter will not take responsibility? Enforce ITIL!
  • Trevor and Jack won’t work together? Go for ITIL!
  • Lack of IT documentation? ITIL!
  • Sandra shows lack of motivation? ITIL!!
  • Ben is a horrible manager? ITIL!!!

The less passionate employees are about their job, the less they feel a strong purpose, the less they take responsibility, the more ITIL seems required.

The ITIL congregation knows that it has the ultimate solution to every issue facing an IT organization. ITIL is the answer. Never mind the question. Bring out the Powerpoints and hard hitting argument. Oversell like mad and brainwash the customer into a true ITIL believer. The cult of ITIL rolls on in the all to recognizable self-serving fashion.

Sounds like Scientology, doesn’t it?

While the differences are obvious, the similarities are striking. Method before result. The tool becomes more important than the objective.

ITIL has been around since the early 90’s. My experience dates back to the early 2000’s. I used to be an ITIL evangelist, but the glare and glitter wore off along with my many ITIL projects. I did several high profile and very successful projects, but they often succeeded despite of ITIL rather than because of it.

Few ITIL projects succeed in making customers happy. Most fail due to some serious faults in the very foundations of the framework. Like the responsibility model, the complexity of the framework, the lack of true customer focus, the lack of real service focus, the lack of people focus. And above all, the belief that a certain method yields a certain result when the input is unknown. One should be very careful trying to implement a mindset of industrialization in the human spheres. What works splendid in a factory may wreck havoc on human initiative, creativity and motivation.

It is more important to help and motivate people than to enforce tools, processes, methods. The belief in the superior process rather than the superior will to deliver excellent results is the hallmark of a failed ITIL project.

People matters. More than the rest.

This is not to say that ITIL doesn’t have some excellent tools and tips. ITIL is good at describing the playing field and different typical
positions for people to play. It points to some good practices in dealing with IT issues, incoming requests, changes to systems that affect many, etc. But as with Scientology, one has to tread carefully in a minefield and wade through some rubbish to get to the good bits. As Scientology fosters a culture of irresponsibility, ITIL tends to do the same. Not by teaching irresponsibility per se, but by focusing so much on everything else as to leave little room for real empowerment and create a culture of self-thinking, responsible people with initiative and guts.

ITIL purports itself as “Best Practice“, but I was there when Sharon Taylor, the Chief Architect for ITIL version 3, said that the framework contains about 60% Best Practice and some 40% Wishful Thinking.

The best that Best Practice can do is to create followers. Leaders innovate, tread new ground and through guts and allowing themselves to fail come up with ingenious ways of doing things even better. Broad ideas and principles may be great guidelines, but when a framework becomes too detailed, it looses its punch and becomes a one-size-fits-few.

ITIL has created hoards of followers. Resembling a cult. But we don’t need cults. Rather than producing followers, one should strive to make everyone a leader in his own work area – even if the person leads only himself to deliver great results.

A few days ago I came across a blog post that was distributed by the LinkedIn news feed titled, “Top 5 ITSM Tips for 2014“. It reads like a gust from the past and serves well to underline what I wrote above. Tip #1 “Cost-effectively implement best practice ITSM” starts off with a whiff of fluffy business English:

Implementing best-practice IT service management not only ensures you are improving customer satisfaction and relationships with better reliability and quality of service, it will also give your service desk a competitive advantage.

Say what? Implementing this will ensure customer satisfaction? The answer is given. Don’t mind asking the customer. Maybe they don’t need anything even resembling ITIL. Maybe they don’t even need an IT department. Maybe they just need more care from the IT staff. Maybe something else entirely.

I don’t think the health profession was ever as narrow minded as this. Enter the doctor’s office. He has already decided what you need. Without even a second of examination. “You sir, is in dire need of an appendectomy!”

The article goes on with tip #2, “Measure your success”. Now this sounds very good. Except:

Measuring the success of your IT service desk will become ever more crucial as senior management hone down on overspending and look at ways to cut costs.”

The IT service desk… What if the customer got such amazing IT that a service desk was hardly ever needed? How about instead asking the customers what they think about the IT services and measure that instead?

Then tip #3 reads “Manage ITIL like never before”. So, instead of managing customers, and IT staff, we are lead to believe that ITIL is something to manage. Actually, it is the thing to manage. You don’t really manage ITIL or even processes. It’s like stating that the soccer manager should manage ball passing like never before. Nope. Manage the players like there was no tomorrow.

“Deal with the increased demand for accelerated delivery” is tip #4. Sound advice as long as your customers needs are assessed and as long as you are not relying on rubber stamp conclusions from analysts. Your customers matters. More than Gartner statistics.

And finally, the sales pitch for the ITIL certification industry: “Qualify your team”. If that would only advise the reader to qualify your team toward what your customers really need. But no, it means getting your staff through multiple choice questionnaires to pass a theoretical exam. A great exercise to produce followers. A louse exercise to enable IT staff to handle customers better.

The article manages to miss the major point in making IT successful – that what is really needed is motivated people that take 100% responsibility for delivering amazing service to their customers. The area of IT thrives through creative genius, people with heart, people who give it all to deliver excellent products and services, interested staff, real and honest communication and people with guts.

ITIL is traditionally very introverted. Not surprising given it’s a framework for an industry overrepresented with people having a hard time picking up girls. More extroverted contributors have come on board in recent years, but as the framework piles on with complexity, it still suffers from the internal focus.

To enhance IT, we need to inspire dedicated customer focus and a culture marked by 100% responsibility.

Book: 1984

1984Today the book, “Nittenåttifire” (ISBN 9788282820592) became available for sale:

Link to the publisher

The main media coverage:

The main book release event will be held on Wednesday 18:00 the 18th (UTC+2, daylight savings) at Litteraturhuset in Oslo, Norway.