The 7 guiding principles of ITIL4 – principle 2 Start where you are

With the new and updated version of ITIL there is also an update on the 9 guiding principles first introduced with ITIL Practioner. These new set of 7 principles provides practical help with making decisions when adopting the ITIL4 framework:

  1. Focus on Value
  2. Start where you are
  3. Progress iteratively with feedback
  4. Collaborate and promote visibility
  5. Think and work holistically
  6. Keep it simple and practical
  7. Optimize and automate

In a series of blogs I will look into each principle asking how these will provide guidance when adopting the ITIL4 framework and when improving the service management capabilities of the IT provider. To me these guiding principles should support the decision making when adopting or improving IT service management. It is also important to note that these principles will have to work together. The principles will not work in isolation, it is not a matter of pick-and-choose.

principle 2 start where you are

Start where you are

In almost all IT departments I have encountered in the past 25 years outages have been solved, user requests have been handled and new software and hardware has been introduced. Although ad hoc and not very well managed, there were ITIL processes (or should I say practices) being executed.

Often there is the perception that ITIL needs to be introduced into an organization as something new and a bit alien. Years ago I was involved in the introduction of the Microsoft Operations Framework in an IT department. When I admitted that at the core MOF is very much like ITIL, I got introduced to a cabinet filled with binders. There were at least four previous attempts at ITIL at this department and I recognized the companies that each have left a shelf of ITIL implementations. Even though the L in ITIL stands for Library, I do not think that this is the intended result.

Implementing ITIL one handbook at a time

Implementing ITIL by writing an handbook is just not a good idea. It creates the impression that the existing way of working is wrong and that there is only one good way of getting it right. ITIL handbooks strengthen resistance and in general do more harm. Better to take the existing way of working as the starting position and to look into ways to improve.  

Empty pizza boxes indicated a change executed

As the manager of the operations team of a large IT service provider I had to deal with a wonky change management process. We only knew if a change to the systems has happened by the pile of empty pizza boxes the development team had left behind in our shared pantry. We had to figure out ourselves what has been changed and if there would be any issues. The ITIL consultant wrote a manual for the change management process. It ended up unread in the round trash can (really!). A different and more practical approach was to engage with the development team in a weekly meeting. First in an informal setting. Later my operations team made minutes and brought them with. The development team thought this to be useful and wanted copies as well. Of course. When a week later there was another pile of empty pizza boxes we discussed this in our meeting. The development team agreed that for than on to communicate change attempts in the meeting. If the change was not in the minutes than it should not have happened. In other words, we created a CAB, a kind of RFC procedure and a better managed change management practice.

Getting lost in ITIL implementations

Start where you are is about understanding that IT services are already being delivered and that practices as defined by ITIL are most likely performed at some level. It is smart to get a better picture of where you actually are. You should first compare the situation in relation to what is expected of the IT services and their contribution to the value of the company or organization. You are only lost if you do not know where you are in relation to where you need to go. If you do not know where to go than knowing where you are will not make a difference.

If you know where you are in relation to where you need to go than the question how to get there becomes relevant. Either it is a question of incremental improvements (evolution) or of major steps (revolution). Start where you are as a guiding principle is very much about realizing what is already there and using the existing resources to move forward. That is in many cases the best way to become successful. And sometimes that is not enough and something more drastic needs to happen. Is there enough time for a gradual improvement? Is there enough energy and engagement in the IT staff to get going? Are the expectations of the stakeholders, business management and the board, realistic and in line with the step-by-step approach?

Successful Change Initiatives have scale

When ITIL is the rationale of a large scale change initiative than you are set for failure. There is no value in ITIL itself: it is a library and framework providing guidance. So far I have not met any board member who would endorse a large scale change initiative based on ITIL alone. The reason behind the change initiative needs to be related to the mission and strategy of the board and the organization. The change initiative needs to lead to a greater value than the costs of the program itself. And for a large scale change initiative to be successful it needs to be exactly that: large and impactful. For my master thesis at Delft University of Technology I looked into the ITIL related change initiatives the company I worked for was involved in. The initiatives that were relative small in scope were also small in impact. To be honest, there was hardly any impact. These were the handbook projects that resulted into another shelf in a cabinet. The initiatives that were large-scale and could be considered a full blown reorganization lead to noticeable positive results. All of them had goals that were beyond the use of ITIL: centralization of IT support, a new datacenter and the introduction of a new enterprise business application. In all these cases the stakeholders on the business side could tolerate the disruption caused by change initiative since they understood the importance to them of the end-result.

A guiding principle?

As a guiding principle Start where you are doesn’t provide a lot of guidance. Like with the first principle, this principle makes more sense when you have the experience on where ITIL approaches fail. They fail when they focus on following ITIL instead of on providing value. They fail when the start with the idea that ITIL-concepts are new and need to be introduced instead of understanding that most of the work done by the IT department already fit into the ITIL practices. They are kind of warning signals for the pitfalls of ITIL implementations.

Understand where you are in relation to where you need to go

When the business and the IT organization has articulated what contribution to the value of the company is expected (principle 1) you can start to investigate how the IT organization can deliver this contribution. This articulation provides input on the expected results and outcome of the service management practices. When you know where to go it becomes relevant to know where you are. Climbing a mountain is not about reaching the top, it is about making the next step upwards. Step by step you get the results. Knowing where you are and knowing the right direction helps to identify the next step. There is distinction between knowing and understanding that is important here. It is not enough to know where you are, it is important to understand it as well. Because than you will also assess if you can make the right step. Do you have what you need to move forward? You’ll have to investigate not only the technical aspects of the situation, but also assess the capabilities and competences of all involved.


Principle 1: Focus on Value

Principle 3: Progress iteratively with feedback