The Practitioner’s Dilemma: How to Adapt ITIL

Trying to implement ITIL processes “by the book” is destined to fail. Practitioners must adapt best practices to meet the organization’s unique challenges.

The Practitioner’s Dilemma

Many newly trained and highly motivated folks head back to the office intent on trying to implement ITIL processes. Makes sense, right? But I’veDon't implement ITIL! seen a wake of disaster behind these well intended efforts. It’s single-handedly done more damage to the practice of IT Service Management than anything else.

So, let me be blunt: The power is not in the frameworks. The magic happens when practitioners become expert at adapting best practices to solve their organization’s challenges.

The goal isn’t to “implement ITIL”, or to “adopt IT Service Management”. These may be exactly what’s needed, but they’re not the goal.

Put simply, The Goal is to maximize the business value of IT. And that takes a whole lot more than just implementing a few processes.

It’s the dilemma practitioners face. Finding the right balance between pragmatic implementation “by the book” on the one hand, and overly creative adaption on the other.

It’s not about the processes

This is where many ITSM efforts go astray. Trying to ‘Implement ITIL’, or any of its processes, especially ‘by the book’.Adapt Best Practices

ITSM consultant Ken Gonzalez gave some great questions to ask when considering best practices recommendations. (Do yourself a favor and check out Ken’s website; good stuff.)

He encourages us to ask some probing questions before thinking of “implementing” anything. For starters:

  1. What does this guidance really mean? What would it really have us doing?

  2. Are we currently doing this or something similar?

  3. What level of change does this represent in how we already work/operate?

  4. What value does this represent to the customer? to our organization?

  5. What dependencies exist that we need to understand and consider?

  6. What impacts can we anticipate, if we choose to implement this practice in our organization?

Which really boils down to:

  • know the value, and

  • know the environment

Value to business

If you can’t explain how a best practice process is valuable to your customers, you’re not ready to implement anything. It’s amazing how many people forget the Value to Business section the ITIL Lifecycle books have for each process.

ITIL provides some excellent stating points, but it’s just the beginning. You have to understand your environment and unique challenges to determine how a given process may be valuable to your business.

Talk with your customers. Try to understand their challenges, and look at IT from their vantage point.

For instance, if your business requires frequent updates to IT systems to stay competitive in the marketplace, then more effective Change Management may be very valuable. But if your business requires very little changes, and instead puts a premium on managing operating costs, then perhaps Financial Management would be a more valuable process to adopt.

The point is, you need to understand the needs of your business and what processes would be most valuable to them.

Understand the environment

No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.

-Frank Lloyd Wright

Part of the problem with best practices training is the vanilla context. It’s helpful for learning the concepts, but can leave the impression that processes are to be implemented in the real world without understanding the context. A house that doesn’t fit its environment.

Like the architect who designs the house to fit perfectly with the property, you must understand the current IT environment – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and make the process fit with it.

This is where Ken’s questions can help. Are we doing anything similar? Are there hidden requirements, expectations, or dependencies?

You can’t will away inconvenient dependencies just because the guidance doesn’t address them.

Making it work

Once you know the value you intend to deliver, and understand the environment, time to get to work.

1. Map the relationships

One of the challenges you face is the relationships between the process in question and processes that either don’t exist, or have different interfaces than defined in the guidance.

An excellent resource is the book It’s All About Relationships: What ITIL® Doesn’t Tell You by SD Van Hove and Kathy Mills. It describes every relationship between all ITIL process.

Map out where and how the new process will interface with existing processes. In some cases, you’ll need to define how the process will function without the connection.

2. Engage all stakeholders

Before you get too far down the road, pull together the key stakeholders of any areas that may be impacted by the new process. Explain to them what you’re trying to do and why it’s important to your customers.  Let them help define how to adapt it so it will work in the environment.

3. Define changes to existing processes

Define how current process must be changed to support the new processes. Be especially mindful of changes to roles, responsibilities, ownership and accountability. Changes here must be carefully managed from current to future state.

4. Modify guidance as needed

Yes, you can. It’s OK, because you’ve taken the time to understand and define the business value you’re trying to deliver. If parts of the guidance don’t help deliver that value, or add undue complexity, especially at the beginning – eliminate it.

Likewise, if parts of the guidance depend on other processes that don’t yet exist, you’ll have to make adjustments.

Adapt and adopt

This is the domain of the IT Service Management practitioner – dealing with the realities of real life, leveraging best practices, and delivering business value. Our job isn’t to implement by the book. We must adapt and adopt the guidance to deliver the desired business value.

This is where the action is. I love what I do.

Photo Credit: brdonovan via Compfight cc

  • Greg,

    Another excellent entry in a long line of excellent posts. Thank you for calling out the blog, the questions and my site. I appreciate that very much and I like the way that you made it relevant in your post.

    You raise a number of important points and prompt some thoughts which very well might be the seeds of some new blogs for me.

    1. Frank Lloyd Wright quote

    This is some very deep stuff. It’s simple, but not simplistic. It’s also a perspective which we’d be well advised to keep front-and-center in our work. If we don’t, we’ll end up with something which is built over the top of something more fundamental. Like how a Band-Aid eventually will fall off from wear, such will be how such add-on’s eventually fail.

    You write:
    “Like the architect who designs the house to fit perfectly with the property, you must understand the current IT environment – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and make the process fit with it.”

    I hope that your readers will look beyond the (often too narrowly defined) term “process” and think of something which represents the next iteration of the service provider organization and it’s ability to deliver desired results and manage customer expectations.

    2. “Modify guidance as needed”
    You are spot on here! This is where the real art of service management comes into play, in my opinion. Why? Given an organizations current state and its desired future state, there will always be a gap. Some things the organization is and isn’t doing.

    This gap is a critical one to understand, because it’s the key to identifying the *minimum viable footprint* (MVF) for both the customer and service provider to be successful. Another way of looking at it is that these are the minimum set of moving parts to make the Service Management System (a la ISO 20K) an operational reality.

    Stuart Rance recently blogged on this, but a lot more work needs to be done. So many people who are in a position to advise/consult on this do not understand what a SMS is, let alone:
    * What moving parts are required;
    * How the parts work together;
    * Or how an operational one is stood up.

    With that as a background, is it any wonder why customers get confused or disillusioned? I think not.


    Again, great job on this entry and keep it up. I love reading your stuff!


    • Hey Ken,

      Thanks for stopping by and your excellent thoughts! You’re spot on where we need to be heading. @StuartRance and others are doing great work in the SMS space, and we’ll all benefit from it.

      What a great time to be in ITSM! I look forward to your next article(s).