ITIL® 4: Guiding Principles, Part Two

The guiding principles of the new ITIL edition have generated a positive response around the world. These are the practical and universal recommendations that you can follow in any situation. They are the foundation of everything we want to achieve in Service Management, as ITIL 4 co-author Philip Hearsum has said. In the previous part, we presented you with the first four principles. Today we’ll be taking a look at the other three, and thinking about why it is sometimes difficult to follow their simple advice.


Think and work holistically

The first of the three remaining principles that we will present today lead us to holistic thinking. Our decisions and actions can have unintended consequences. We may have been working for two months on a change that will make one team’s job much easier, but failed to notice that it makes extra work for another. No activity in the company happens in a vacuum and you have to take into account both the broader context (people, technologies, external situations, suppliers, …) and end-to-end processes.

As you’ll recall, in the previous section we illustrated all the processes with an example of a company preparing its new representative website. When working on such a new site, we may need to share data with an external vendor. If we do it thoughtlessly, we can easily create a security hole. Another example of holistic thinking will be our consideration of an appropriate editorial system. We can’t just look at the features available, but we also need to think about its ergonomics for users, the stability of the supplier and consider whether the system locks us in with one supplier without the chance to switch to another if needed.


Keep it simple and practical

We can stay with the website example. We have already mentioned the importance of getting feedback. But implementing just anything that stakeholders recommend makes for a bloated and chaotic higgledy-piggledy solution. Try to minimize complexity. Identify what’s most important, and stick to that. One well-established practice with a website is to define personas, archetypes of users who will use the site. Then you design the entire site for these personas. There may be 10 such personas for your website. But not every one of them is equally important. If you write the website to suit all, it will suit none.

How to simplify in practice? ITIL expert Rudolf Slaba likenesses this to the growth of trees in the forest: ‘We will mark the healthy and strong trees in the stands that should stay. The others can be cut down. Similarly, you need to think about the output value of each activity. If the activity doesn’t deliver value, cut it out.’

In each organization, reports, processes, control steps tend to accumulate over time, their original purpose gone, but still going strong due to inertia. You can get rid of those, too. In processes, we often find interim steps with negligible benefit. Get rid of them, too. If you are designing a new service or product, start by keeping it simple. You can always add additional extensions/features later. Here, too, you need to keep in mind the holistic approach of the previous principle. You may see some step as needless, but it could have an important role, e.g. from a security point of view.

Here we touch on another fact. Different people in the organization have different goals, which may be contradictory. Let’s think about our site again. Marketing and Sales primarily want a simple website that makes it as easy as possible to convert new customers. The HR department wants to use the website to reach job-seekers better. The Development department wants to inform existing customers about new releases and known bugs. The IT department does not want to deal with content management, but at the same time is afraid to give another team administration rights. Here we have many diverse interests, which will require a considerable degree of compromise to align.


Optimize and automate

The inclusion of this principle is unlikely to surprising to anyone. Human capital is the most valuable production factor and modern business will not waste it. Optimization should always precede automation. First you need to find the optimal way of working, otherwise automation will become unnecessarily expensive or not bring the desired result. As Ivor McFarlane, one of ITIL’s founding fathers has put it: ‘If you accelerate chaos, you’ll only have quick chaos.’ Note that optimal does not necessarily mean the simplest. We often encounter rising marginal costs when it comes to simplification and automation. Perhaps the process could be simplified by two more steps, but that simply does not pay off at the moment.

Going back to our example with a new website, one of the things we come across from time to time is a request for a new page within the site. Maybe it’ll be a new job, a conference page, or a seasonal promotion. When such a page is created, it is usually necessary to get approval for the result from the marketing department, sometimes also from the human resources department. Before optimization, such approval requests tend to go chaotically to different people, often directly to the head of marketing. That makes for a needless waste of everyone’s time. As part of the optimization, we will divide the types of new pages into two categories and clearly determine who should approve which type. You then automate approval using a service-desk or workflow tool, so that creating a new page automatically triggers an approval request to the appropriate approver. And if it would also pay off, why not consider automatically creating and publishing the page on the basis of data entered in the request.


The power of guiding principles lies in their interconnectedness

The guiding principles were first presented in the book ITIL Practitioner and subsequently slightly revised as part of ITIL 4. Now that we’ve been through them together, you’re probably thinking there’s nothing earth-shattering about them. They are indeed quite simple, yet potent ideas. The problem is that even simple ideas are sometimes difficult to apply consistently in practice. When you set out to apply them, you’re likely to run into some early problems. One illustrative example comes form colleague and ITIL expert Zdeněk Jelínek: ‘Take the principle to collaborate and promote visibility, i.e. that we should work together and be transparent about it. Cooperation always takes two. If IT wants to work with the Business but the Business is not interested, that principle is hardly likely to be fulfilled. Of course, the same applies if IT doesn’t want to cooperate with the Business.’

His view is shared by another ITIL expert, Jan Hospes: ‘It’s always about people. In companies, politicking and the not-invented-here syndrome are commonplace. That’s why we have management, who should be able to think in a broader context and communicate clear information to the team. This is also acknowledged in the Service Value System model, where a governance element is reserved for management.’ If you want to make the most of the principles in your company, it won’t suffice just to remind yourself of them once in a while. You have to relentlessly build the culture that lets you follow these principles.

In all this, bear in mind that the true power of the guiding principles is in their interconnectedness. One principle leads you to simplify processes, but the next highlights the need to look for the optimal level of simplicity. One teaches you to work iteratively, but another emphasizes not losing sight of the overall picture. If you do not lose sight of all 7 principles in your decision-making, you’re sure to find the success rate of your efforts going up.

Published at: 1. October 2021

CIO Newsletter

Provides new perspectives on the role of the CIO in the company, inspiring recommendations on how to succeed in this role, advice on how to "manage" IT department employees, and industry news.

Subscribe to the newsletter

eBook 90-day plan for the new IT manager

An experienced CIO who will give you a clear answer on how to proceed if you are put in charge of IT and expected to take quick and effective action.

Download eBook