On gratifying adventures

Yesterday was my last day at AXELOS — a joint venture with the Cabinet Office here in the UK — where I spent three and a half years leading a team that is looking after the ITIL framework.

AXELOS now owns ITIL, and PRINCE2, and a few other methods and frameworks that are used in tens of thousands of organizations around the world. And yes, contrary to popular belief, ITIL has always been owned by someone, and for the majority of its 28-year existence, it has been a commercial product.

I joined the company as Head of ITSM at a time of great turbulence — the world of IT was changing rapidly, and the world of business was changing with it. Having worked in the IT Service Management (ITSM) industry for quite some time, most recently with Skype, I had my vision for ITIL, its role in the wider context of organisational capabilities, and what philosophies like DevOps mean for it. I like the framework and I had seen it working for many organizations in the past — but, as many of us, I had also seen it being misused, leading to painful processes, demotivated employees, increased fragility, and loss of value. Clearly, something was amiss.

AXELOS provided me with a great opportunity to work with organizations small and large all around the world to better understand their challenges and ITIL’s role in solving these — but sometimes, also, in creating these.

I found a world of ITIL dogmas, where statements like “but ITIL says so” trumped common sense, going against the fundamental adopt-and-adapt nature of the framework. I found a world of “ITIL implementations”, with five-year plans designed (and funded!) to put in place all the 26 processes exactly as described in ITIL. I found a world obsessed with maturity levels, forgetting that for sustainable growth, continual improvement needs to start on day 1, not at level 5.

I also found a world of organizations that had aced it with the help of ITIL. Large enterprises, who had adopted the service mind-set, changed the role of IT from a cost center to a competitive advantage, and where the CIO had had a seat at the table for many years. Small companies that dominated their much bigger competitors by streamlining the provision of technology and putting their customers first. Startups, who had moved their focus from user acquisition to customer retention, and shifted from the product and feature mindset to that of a service and continual improvement.

While in the wild ITIL is most often encountered in the help-desk / service desk part of the IT organization, and in documentation about processes and procedures for planning and control (CAB, anyone?), this leverages only a fraction of the guidance. My role was now to figure out how to share the lessons learned, and help organizations to adopt the relevant parts of the guidance — but do it in a reasonable, sustainable, organizational-value-focused way. The way it was always intended, but not always executed.

Which leads me to ITIL Practitioner, the sixth official book in the ITIL core library (in addition to the Lifecycle publications), something that has more than once been referred to as “the best ITIL book out there”, and what I consider to be my most gratifying achievement with AXELOS. The objective of ITIL Practitioner was to translate the lessons learned (about how to best leverage the guidance in ITIL to deliver value to the organization and its customers, and how to support continual improvement) into a language that most organizations out there can relate to their situation, challenges, and opportunities. It’s the “how” of ITIL, to augment the “what” and the “why” of service management that’s covered in the other five books.

I’m honored. Not just by the amazing feedback from the global community, or the fact that the book has already been translated into German, French, Latin American Spanish, and Japanese, but also by having had the opportunity to work with a great international team — the ITIL Practitioner Architect Team — to put the guidance together. Kevin Behr, Karen Ferris, Lou Hunnebeck, Barclay Rae, Stuart Rance, and Paul Wilkinson — all of them fantastic people with years and years of hands-on experience in the industry. Together with my colleagues from AXELOS — Craig, Clare, Lorna, Rachida, and many others— we managed to achieve something that was widely considered to be impossible.

I’m also honored to have been able to grow my professional network of passionate, pragmatic, no-nonsense people from around the world. Please accept my sincere gratitude for helping me translate your knowledge and experience into guidance for the global audience during my time at AXELOS. Too many great people to name them all, but my special thanks go to Dominica DeGrandis, with whom I had an opportunity to co-author a practical guidance paper about using Kanban in IT Operations. Dominica — you are amazing.

So, after two major publications (don’t forget the recently launched PRINCE2 2017 edition!), two major papers (there’s the pretty cool ITIL and DevOps one too), 60+ presentations at conferences in all corners of the Earth, many interviews (a challenge, initially, for an introvert, as you can imagine), and a countless number of hours to and from Heathrow T5, it is time to move on.

The work on ITIL continues, and my (now ex) team will be in charge, working closely with the global practitioner community. Don’t hesitate to reach out to Akshay and Roman, and to sign up to the Global ITSM Research Programme they are currently running, to make sure your experience is reflected in the published guidance.

The experience with ITIL Practitioner has proven the chosen approach to developing ITIL works. The direction has been set — future guidance needs to be practical, well researched, and based on real experience of what works and what doesn’t, to avoid falling for the survivor bias. It needs to be “from practitioners, for practitioners” as I used to say, to ensure it is actionable. It also needs to acknowledge and leverage other frameworks, methods, and philosophies — e.g. Lean, Agile, and DevOps.

I’d like to believe I’ve managed to bring the DevOps and ITSM communities much closer to each other than they were before. I see DevOps, among other things, as an opportunity for significant improvement of practices for anyone working in ITSM, and at the same time, I think that the DevOps community can learn from ITIL. As Gene Kim puts it, “[…] because DevOps requires fast detection and recovery when service incidents occur, the ITIL disciplines of event, incident and problem management remain as relevant as ever.” I believe it goes well beyond the reactive capabilities, as the need for adopting the service mind-set has demonstrated itself in both startups and large enterprises — so concepts like service design, an important part of ITIL, are gaining traction, too.

I believe there is a lot of work to be done to help enterprises rethink and redesign their processes and services, and to get rid of the “scar tissue” (as Adrian Cockcroft puts it). We have clearly moved from MTBI to MTTR, and failing technology means technology not delivering the value it was supposed to, rather than servers going offline in a data center. All of this is well aligned with the principles of ITSM, but still, so rarely practiced.

In the organizations I’ve talked to, I’ve sometimes seen a tendency to scrap it all and rebuild — and, while it might be necessary in some cases, a continual improvement approach is usually better. Significant transformation initiatives often tend to see the next state as the end goal, and confuse the “how” with the “why” — which, in turn, leads to a continual cycle of just catching up.

There is also a lot that can be done to help startups scale, by translating the guidance of proven practices into the language of today’s technology, business objectives, and common challenges. There is a certain arrogance I’ve seen about idolizing new technologies, and against anything “not invented here”. But, sometimes, what looks like progress is just jogging in place, and what looks like innovation is just another re-invented wheel. Blindly following guidance — any guidance — is not a smart thing to do, but not learning from the past isn’t either. It is easy to get lost in the ever-expanding landscape of new methods and tools, chasing after the next silver bullet, and forget about customer value, the thing that truly matters.

I’ve seen the service mind-set catching on, as organizations realize that customers have expectations beyond new functionality, and that services as vehicles of co-creating value do actually work. The complexity of building and supporting those services — now that much of what was traditionally the domain of in-house IT Operations lives in the cloud — is becoming a significant challenge for many companies, including those traditionally described as “ITIL houses”. Let’s see what can be done to make it work.

I will now be taking a few weeks off, to spend time with my friends and family. And then, it is time to choose my next adventure.

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