What's wrong with ITIL?

An Interview with the UK’s #1 ITIL Hater

How is that for a click-bait blog title? This blog is a Q&A session with Steve Chambers who, since about 2009, has written on and presented his criticism and condemnation of ITIL®, an IT service management (ITSM) best practice framework. His inflammatory articles include “Is the ITIL make-over like putting lipstick on a pig?” and “Is ITIL the Gerin Oil of IT?” – both of which sadly died with his old website. But thanks to the Internet Archive’s digital library, these and others can be found again:

In this blog I seek to understand Steve’s point of view by asking him questions about his dislike of ITIL, to see if there’s any foundation to his views or if he just had a bad experience with an ITIL book as a child. When not venting about this topic, Steve is a very nice guy…or so he tells me.

Steve, there are some ITSM people who think that you hate ITIL, is this true?

“Some people?” You mean the ITIListas? I thought they stopped paying attention to me and my views a long time ago.

“Hate” isn’t the right word. I prefer to say that I strongly disagree with it and its many bogus ideas, and the ITIL consultants, for a number of reasons. I hope that people don’t take my disagreement personally because I actually like quite a few of the ITIListas. I think that their dear, misguided hearts are in the right place even if their heads are stuck somewhere else.

I see the ITIListas as those nice, homeopathic hippies who are only a danger to themselves until they push their medicine to people who don’t know the dangers of their sugar pills.

Okay, that’s about “ITIL people,” what specifically do you find disagreeable about ITIL?

I’ll keep my disagreement-list short, and focus on the five biggies that get me animated:

  1. It’s is a religious dogma. With priests, a good book, and the alienation of dissenters. I once wrote about ITIL as Gerin Oil for IT, which is an idea I borrowed from Richard Dawkins (it’s an acronym for Religion). I feel about ITIL the way Richard feels about Religion.
  2. The name is misleading. ITIL isn’t about IT, it’s not about infrastructure, and it’s not a library. (Joe: to be fair ITIL hasn’t been an acronym for IT Infrastructure Library since 2007 but I appreciate that many people, including vendors and analysts who should know better, unfortunately still use the term.)
  3. Best practice is the wrong approach for complex IT sociotechnical systems. ITIL describes itself as a best practice framework but the research of thinkers like David Snowden, with his Cynefin framework, tell us that applying best practices to complex problems, like IT, isn’t just incorrect but inhumane.
  4. The corporate IT focus on being a service provider is wrong. Evidence has shown that when IT seeks to become a service provider it becomes self-interested and a chasm opens between IT and the rest of the business. It’s the opposite of what ITIL claims to achieve!
  5. It isn’t prescriptive. And the ITIListas say that it’s important to pick and choose, and use, only what you need! If you get it wrong, it’s therefore the implementers’ fault. This is a bizarre best-practice-but-not-really-and-do-what-you-like kind of framework.

However, the biggest beef that I have with it is that it’s out of touch with what is really happening in corporate IT today with digital, DevOps, and cloud. I feel sorry for people stuck in roles “doing” ITIL. I would personally never hire a lifelong ITIL “professional,” and if I interview someone with ITIL on their CV they can expect some deep questioning from me.

That’s a strong set of opinions, Steve. Where on earth did they come from?

My first job was in a UK bank, working as a mainframe systems programmer. That was my introduction to ITIL through change, incident, and problem management, capacity planning…all that stuff. I was 21 and I thought that it was how grownups did real computing. I found those processes, and the people that did them, very tedious. And the ITSM team was where the misfits went to work.

Then about ten years ago I was working at VMware, trying to break down the barriers to adopting virtualization. I kept hearing the same things from large customers – ITIL-related questions such as “Is a vMotion an incident or a change?” (My answer: “neither, stop creating valueless work”). I needed to help the virtualization advocates at our customers with ITIL cheat sheets to help them to deal with their internal ITIL bureaucracy.

By 2009 I had fifteen years’ experience of ITIL behaviors as a customer, a service provider, and a software vendor and I was getting frustrated with it because of two things:

  1. The ITIL people I met at customers completely denigrated technology as unimportant, and
  2. Worst of all, they created barriers and slowdowns where they weren’t needed.

So what did you do about it?

I really don’t care about ITIL. It’s like an old girlfriend that I used to love, but fell out badly with, who is now still hanging around my friends. I sincerely want things to get better.

I started doing something about it while I was at VMware in around 2006. The public funny-but-serious writing didn’t happen until 2009 when I was at Cisco. At VMware, to help me and my customers get over the ITIL frustration, I decided with my VMware colleagues to create a VMware Operational Framework. The idea was to take the five main ITIL books and to create a virtualization-specific framework that helped to bridge the gap between our virtualization advocates and their ITIL colleagues. We were seeing the same questions and answers across our customer base, so it was time to write it up, share it, and to get customers there faster.

This is when the lack of prescription became clear and it was just about impossible to find a consistent prescriptive framework. This was also compounded by the different ways that customers were interpreting ITIL, something that some folks seem to actively encourage. At this point, after fifteen years’ experience of ITIL, the cost and complexity of it and the lack of value (which it promised but didn’t deliver), I started to blog about it. That’s when the ITIListas started to notice my dislike of it!

The sessions I did with customers, on breaking down barriers, were often described as therapy sessions. Every customer had similar issues, and most of those issues were related to ITIL. I did a super-session at VMworld on this and over 500 people attended. That’s 500 people with the same pain in the ass.

But that sounds like it isn’t ITIL’s fault, just how it’s interpreted?

Isn’t that what religious hardliners say about the bible? One minute they’re quoting it; the next minute they are saying to interpret it figuratively not literally.

In my opinion, it’s like a mass delusion amongst some, much like faith in general. There are more skeptics and atheists out there when it comes to ITIL, but most of them are technologists and so they are put down if they dare to raise their voice against the insanity of following vague best practices in a complex sociotechnical environment.

Do you see yourself as a technologist, at war with service management and the business?

This is another pet peeve of mine, that ITIListas talk as if they have a monopoly on what the business needs, and conversely (and perversely) they say that technologists do technology just for its own sake and don’t care about the business or end users. There are lots of ignoramuses out there and they are like that whether they are technologists, ITIListas, or baristas.

The best technologists I know are those that have one foot in the business and one foot in the technology camp. They are worth their weight in gold. They value people very highly, they value technology very highly, but they refuse to follow processes just for process sake, especially one concocted in a dark room using Visio that’s useless in the real world.

What’s next for ITIL?

I think that it will fade and be consigned to history, because its foundation is flawed and it’s not being updated. The research of organizations like Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), from the professors who wrote “The Second Machine Age,” includes economic data that shows technology is powering economies and that people are falling behind. ITIL could be seen by some as a tool to hold onto and slow down the rise of technology, but it won’t work. Movements like DevOps are talking about culture, eliminating waste, and “doing” IT at the speed of business. This is what is replacing ITIL, and I for one am a fan. I hope all the nice ITSM people I know come along for the next stage of the journey, because most of them really are nice. The ones that listen, anyway :).

Thank you, Steve. I think I might need to have a lie down now. If this blog doesn’t generate comment and debate, then I don’t think that any of them will.

Posted by Joe the IT Guy

Joe the IT Guy
Joe the IT Guy

Native New Yorker. Loves everything IT-related (and hugs). Passionate blogger and Twitter addict. Oh...and resident IT Guy at SysAid Technologies (almost forgot the day job!).

One thought on “An Interview with the UK’s #1 ITIL Hater”

  1. Avatar Gareth Daine

    Really enjoyed reading this article (whilst listening to The Phoenix Project on iTunes) and Steve’s perspective and opinions on the subject. I also loved the references to religion and Richard Dawkins (wishing him a swift recovery), as I’m a big supporter of him.


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