ITSM 101: 5 More Ways People Misuse ITIL

Stuart Rance October 10, 2018
- 5 min read

In my last ITSM 101 blog, I wrote about five ways people commonly misunderstand and misuse ITIL. From overly focusing on the processes, through expecting a new IT service management (ITSM) tool to fix everything, to running large projects (or programs) that take too long to start to deliver value. In this blog, I offer up five more common ITIL mistakes and what you can do to avoid them.

It’s not necessary to have read my previous blog, but it would be helpful in understanding the full spectrum of things that might prevent your organization from fully realizing the benefits available from ITIL.

So, here are five more ways that people commonly misunderstand and misuse ITIL.

6. They Enforce an Inappropriate SLA

A service level agreement (SLA) is a description of a service, and the agreed metrics and targets that will be used to measure and report how well the provider is delivering the service. SLAs are useful tools and best practice guidance suggests it’s helpful to have them. But some IT service providers think that if they meet the metrics in the SLA then they have done everything they need to.

Unfortunately, SLAs have often been written by the IT department with little or no customer input, and far too often this results in thoroughly dissatisfied customers even when all the SLA metrics have been met.

If you have agreed an SLA with your customer, then it’s important to deliver what you have committed to, but it’s much more important to satisfy the customer’s real needs, even if these are difficult to measure and report. Customers are quite capable of telling you how they really feel if you just ask them. An SLA may be a useful tool, but if you aim to provide good services, talking to your customers and ensuring they are happy with what you deliver is much more important.


7. They Ensure Their Metrics Look Good

ITSM practitioners understand the importance of measuring what they do. Metrics are great for reporting trends, and as triggers for taking action. But as soon as the metric becomes the goal then, no matter how good the metrics may look, they stop being meaningful.

Goodhart’s Law (named after the economist Charles Goodhart) says that “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure". This is as true in ITSM as it is in economics – if you tell someone that their next pay rise depends on achieving a specific metric, then they will do whatever it takes to ensure that number looks good. And those things may not be things that you or your customer wants them to do. 

One thing I always do when I am setting key performance indicators (KPIs) is to ask: “What behavior will people adopt to ensure this KPI is met?”. This is often enough to tell me that the indicator will cause behavior I do not want to encourage, and that I should NOT measure and report it. Are your customers satisfied with the metrics you use? And do you know what types of behavior your KPIs promote?

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8. They Forget to Think About the Real Customers

I have worked with many IT organizations with siloed groups who have no understanding of how they fit in an overall value chain. Each group simply does the work assigned to them in the way that makes most sense, with no idea of how this contributes to the creation of value for paying customers. Often this results in inefficient and wasteful activities, that provide no real value for the organization or their customers. 

Many years ago, a very wise manager said to me: “I want you to stop whatever you are doing at least once a day and ask yourself ‘If the paying customers knew they were funding this activity, how would they feel?’”. This is a fabulously simple exercise that anyone can do, and it really does help people to focus on creating value for the actual customers.

Another way to avoid siloed behavior is to get people from different IT groups together. For example, hold a workshop where people map out their work to see how everybody contributes to the overall goals. An exercise like this can help identify major improvement opportunities, because it shows where there is significant waste, and where things one group does make it hard for another group to deliver.


9. They Make Someone Else Responsible for Continual Improvement

Some organizations ignore continual improvement altogether. Others assign a continual improvement manager, and everyone else assumes that they don’t have to take part, because “it’s someone else’s job”.

It’s good to have a continual improvement manager who facilitates and encourages continual improvement, provided everyone expects to take responsibility for some aspects of continual improvement. It’s essential that every process, every service, every piece of technology, every team, and every individual contributes to continual improvement. And this can only be done by people who know, understand, and take ownership of the thing that needs to be improved.

For example, I think about my own skills and experience, and I identify things I can do to improve. This might be reading a book or a blog, attending a training course, working with a mentor, downloading and playing with a software tool, etc.


10. They “Implement” ITIL

Probably the worst mistake of all is trying to “implement” ITIL. Every ITIL publication explains that the guidance is intended to be “adopted and adapted”. This means doing the things that make sense in your context and modifying them to work well for you. The flowcharts and steps in ITIL are not instructions to be followed, they are examples that you can learn from. 

The most recent ITIL publication, ITIL Practitioner, was published in 2015. This describes a set of guiding principles that can help you adopt and adapt the ideas from ITIL. These principles included ideas such as “focus on value”, “keep it simple", and “progress iteratively”. If you use these principles to guide you as you adopt and adapt ITIL to meet the needs of your organization, then you won’t go too far wrong.


ITIL can be hugely valuable if its ideas are carefully adopted and adapted. And if you are thinking of using it to help your organization, then there is no substitute for thinking about what you are doing. Avoid the mistakes I have described in this blog, adopt and adapt carefully, and both you and your customers will get real value from ITIL. Tell us about your experience!

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