Beyond20: A ServiceNow Elite Partner How Does ITIL 4 Help Orgs that are Adopting Agile, DevOps, and Lean?

How ITIL 4 Helps Organizations Adopt Agile, DevOps, and Lean

Erika Flora
Written by Erika Flora

The Rise of Agile, DevOps, and Lean in the Age of Digital Transformation

“We’re going Agile [or, alternately, ‘We’re doing DevOps’]! We don’t need ITIL.” I’ve heard some variation of these proclamations countless times from clients, especially the ones that are embarking on an Agile transformation, digital transformation, or some other type of major organizational change. To make matters worse, software developers and even leaders have developed an aversion to ITIL, and their disdain is often justified. Often, the folks in IT that “spout all things ITIL” have, unfortunately, brought this perception on themselves. They’re seen as the gatekeepers to getting actual work done and preventing or delaying transformation efforts from taking hold.

The Problem with the “ITIL Folks”

In many organizations, the “ITIL folks” often do things that prevent IT from delivering great products and services quickly, sometimes without even realizing it. You can spot these people as they’re the ones that talk about having “documented processes in place” rather than innovating, improving, and accelerating the organization to greatness (yes, having good processes is important, but they are only a piece of the puzzle). Instead, they’re worried about whether you correctly filled out a Request for Change form and are scheduled to discuss your change at the Change Advisory Board meeting next Thursday at 1pm. God help you if your documentation isn’t in order by then*.

Sound familiar? The good news is it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, in the best organizations, Agile, DevOps, Lean, and ITIL concepts work really well together. You just have to look at ITIL concepts with a “light touch” mentality (even how we handle change enablement can be way better than it is today) and only use the stuff that helps our organization improve. This article will cover how ITIL can support our Agile, DevOps, and other transformation efforts (digital or otherwise), what the ITIL 4 library says on each of these topics, as well as how several of us at Beyond20 and other collaborators used an agile approach to write the ITIL 4 Digital and IT Strategy (DITS) book that I had the very good fortune to be a part of.

*There are very good reasons for managing change (to avoid major issues, for one, particularly in regulated environments). However, the process must work well to be effective.

ITIL’s Origins and How it Supports Agility

A Brief History on the ITIL books

The ITIL books were first published in the 1980s and, as is often the case with “best practice” frameworks and methods, they were born out of pain and suffering. In this case, the “pain and suffering” belonged to the British Government whose IT department was not delivering IT services well. In response, the British Government ended up creating the largest collection of lessons learned in the tech community that has ever been done. Essentially, they looked at what other IT organizations were doing well and came up with the ITIL “publications.” The books didn’t invent anything, per say, but rather they shared with IT organizations worldwide what some “best in class” organizations were doing and how they were working.

The Four Versions of the ITIL Library

Since that time, the books have gone through several revisions with ITIL v3 being released in 2007. At the time, the books were extremely helpful to organizations delivering IT services. Unfortunately, the ITIL books weren’t significantly updated for more than a decade after the 2007 release (there was a minor update to the books in 2011). The technology industry is constantly changing and, unfortunately, the ITIL books fell behind the times. As a result, ITIL v3 didn’t include any information on how modern organizations are currently working with Agile, DevOps, Lean, and the like. Fortunately, that is changing. In February of 2019, a new version, ITIL 4, was released, and it pulls these concepts into the library.

The ITIL 4 Publications that Speak to Agile, DevOps, and Lean

All six publications in the ITIL 4 library cover Agile, DevOps, and Lean concepts. These books were created from several years of research into how modern organizations work. They pulled some of the best concepts from leading practices and codified them into the library, serving as a comprehensive reference to IT and business leaders as well as practitioners. These next few sections will break down what’s covered in each of the books, starting with ITIL 4 Foundation.

What does ITIL 4 Foundation Say about Agile, DevOps, and Lean?

There are several key Agile, DevOps, and Lean-related concepts discussed in the ITIL 4 Foundation book and associated 2-day ITIL 4 Foundation certification course. Here are a couple of them:

  • The Service Value System, which has strong tie ins with “systems thinking” and organizational agility. The SVS is concerned with thinking about and architecting our organization as a single system rather than as individual silos.
  • The 7 Guiding Principles (pictured here) that give an overview of how we should approach implementing ITIL 4 concepts. The guiding principles draw inspiration from the “3 Ways” principles of DevOps, the 5 Lean Principles or the “Lean Way,” as well as the 4 Values of the Agile Manifesto and 12 principles of Agile software.
ITIL Guiding Principles

ITIL 4’s Guiding Principles

Though not discussed in depth as part of an ITIL 4 Foundation class, ITIL 4’s Practice Guide on Project and Program Management steps through Agile and Scrum approaches to managing project and programs. AXELOS provides electronic versions of the 34 Practice Guides you can download as part of their MyITIL program. Anyone that’s taken an ITIL 4 course and passed the exam receives a free subscription to MyITIL for one year. After that, the cost of the subscription is $50 annually.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concepts in ITIL 4, taking a foundation or advanced course on the topic, which we will cover next, can be really helpful.

What does DITS Say about Agile, DevOps, and Lean?

Operational and Strategic Agility

The Digital and IT Strategy or DITS book (and the 3-day DITS training course and exam that goes with it) provides an overview of several of the characteristics of a high-velocity organization, with a slant for what leaders care about, and discusses the topic of operational versus strategic agility (see Chapter 3 on Organizational Viability):

There are two types of agility: operational and strategic. Operational agility enables organizations to develop, deliver, and improve valuable, high-quality products and services for customers more quickly. Strategic agility, however, which is practiced by the world’s most successful global technology-focused companies, enables organizations to find new ways of providing products and services that attract new consumers and move into new industries and/or markets. Operational agility is the equivalent of focusing on creating a better candle whereas, strategic agility focuses on, as with Thomas Edison in the invention of the lightbulb, finding a new way to generate light (“The Age of Agile,” Stephen Denning).

Organizational Change and the Satir Change Model

One of the concepts I’m glad made it into the DITS book is that of the Satir Change Model (pictured below), which is often covered in a Certified ScrumMaster or an Organizational Change Management training course. It shows the path that organizations go through when implementing major change. It’s a different path than leaders envision change will take; and it’s a good way to frame our mindset – and prepare our teams – when approaching transformative change. Chapter 11 on Managing Strategic Initiatives also gets into the mechanics of large-scale versus incremental transformations.

Satir Change Model

Satir Change Model

Using an Agile Approach to Write About Organizational Agility

I had the very good fortune to serve as a Lead Editor and author on the DITS book, so I’ll go into a bit more detail on how the book was written. Because the DITS book covers the topic of organizational agility, we felt it important to use an Agile approach in writing it. In fact, the DITS book is the only ITIL 4 publication with two Lead Editors, where I served in more of a Scrum Master role, while my co-Lead Editor served as Product Owner. We kept our development team small – a core team of five other key authors; and we had a wider circle of reviewers, contributors, industry stakeholders, as well as AXELOS (the folks that own the intellectual property for ITIL) that helped create the book – as pictured below.


Collaborators for ITIL 4 DITS

1-Week Content Sprints

Due to the tight timelines and availability of our authors, we broke work into one-week sprints and mashed several of the Scrum events together. Each week, we met virtually to plan for the next sprint (our goal was to deliver at least five pages of content per week), understand where we were in terms of deliverable deadlines, and discuss the content that had been created as well as to-be written.

Sprint Planning and Sprint Reviews

Each week, we select a simple sprint goal (for example, “revise the table of contents” and/or “write section X of the book”). We discuss what the team – or specific team members – could reasonably accomplish, given that we all were working full-time jobs and wanted the occasional I-pretend-to-have-a-life-and-don’t-want-to-be-writing-anything-this-weekend. We also wanted to make sure that what we planned on writing (and what we actually ended up writing) matched up with what the industry wanted. As such, we held Alpha and Beta sessions with digital leaders across several industries and countries to test everything out and get feedback.

What does HVIT Say about Agile, Lean, and DevOps?

The High Velocity IT (HVIT) book and associated 3-day HVIT certification course provide more technical details on specific behaviors, tools, and techniques that come from Agile, Lean, and DevOps communities. Here’s a short list of some of the concepts covered:

  • DevSecOps as well the DevOps Audit Defense Toolkit, which aligns with the “3 Ways” of DevOps.
  • From the Agile community and the Scrum Guides, the HVIT book covers Retrospectives, Minimum Viable Products, the Definition of Done (DoD), Product Backlogs, tackling Technical Debt, and the use of Kanban boards
  • CI/CD – Continual Integration, Development, and Deployment
  • Toyota Kata, which helps organizations coach teams to consistently and methodically approach problems with a scientific mindset (pictured here).
Toyota Improvement Kata

Toyota Improvement Kata

HVIT also covers how high-velocity cultures often have four dominant characteristics (pictured below).

Key characteristics of HVIT

Key characteristics of HVIT

What does DSV Say about Agile, Lean, and DevOps?

The Drive Stakeholder Value or DSV book and associated 3-day DSV certification course discuss Agile and Lean as part of the Offer phase, where customers and service providers are working to shape and define products and services. This chapter discusses techniques like defining MVPs, writing User Stories to define requirements, and prioritizing work/requirements through MoSCoW and Work Shortest Job First (WSJF) techniques.

What does CDS Say about Agile, Lean, and DevOps?

The Create, Deliver, and Support (CDS) book and associated 3-day CDS certification course talk about Value Stream Mapping, a key concept that comes from Lean. Like HVIT, the CDS book also talks a bit about the importance of creating a psychologically safe culture.

What does DPI Say about Agile, Lean, and DevOps?

Last, the Direct, Plan, and Improve (DPI) book and associated 3-day DPI certification course provide recommendations on using an Agile approach for planning and executing work. Several sections discuss the idea of creating MVPs and mapping Value Streams. There are also references to other AXELOS-developed frameworks, that of AgileSHIFT and PRINCE2 Agile.

How do We Integrate ITIL 4 with Agile, DevOps, and Lean?

So, how do we start to integrate ITIL 4 concepts with our existing transformation efforts? Some of the best advice I’ve heard on the subject comes from a CIO colleague (I’m paraphrasing):

Look to understand ITIL concepts and take the parts that help your organization work more effectively.

That’s it. We don’t need to implement all of this stuff, just the parts that help with something we’re trying to do. No need to make it more complicated than that.

With that said, here are some ideas to help mesh the great ideas you find in ITIL 4 with what your organization is trying to do with Agile, DevOps, Lean, etc.

  • If your knowledge is still in ITIL v3 world, get caught up to speed on ITIL 4. Take a class, read online ITIL 4 resources, etc.
  • Understand the bigger problem(s) the organization is looking to solve as well as the organization’s vision, mission, objectives, OKRs, etc.
  • Meet the people leading the transformation and learn what they’re doing. Ask lots of questions (ask don’t tell).
  • Educate yourself on the topics of Agile/Scrum, DevOps, digital transformation, etc. The ITIL 4 books are a good starting point. However, they only give a high-level overview of these concepts. Read every book on the topic that you can get ahold of and check out some of the resources in this article.
  • Find out what people hate about ITIL and work to fix those areas (Change Management – what is now called Change Enablement in ITIL 4 – is a good starting point to win back some friends).
  • Use ITIL 4 concepts – where they make sense – to start introducing improvements within your area of influence and control. Knowledge Management, Continuous Learning, and KCS are also great places to make meaningful improvements.
  • Frame all ITIL 4 ideas against how they can be helpful to those around you. If you start any conversation with, “ITIL says…” please know that you will be ignored and likely banished from transformation island. A better way to phrase your ideas is, “Thoughts on trying X to solve this problem?” People don’t even need to know you’re using a concept you found in the ITIL 4 books. If it works and helps make life easier for those around you, that’s what’s important.

Final Thoughts on ITIL 4 and Transformation

My hope for the community of “ITIL folks” out there is that, as you learn about the concepts in the ITIL 4 library, a shift will happen – away from being the ones always saying “no” to people in the organization to helping support and facilitate the shift towards agility and transformation. We can be the ones seen as having some great recommendations and ideas on how to better serve our teams, organizations, and customers. We have every ability to be a trusted and valuable voice at the table – seeing as we know a thing or two about Service Management. The only catch is that the change needs to start with ourselves.

In that spirit, I’ll leave you with the preface to the ITIL 4 DITS book:

Digital technology has ushered in a new age of business, society, and economy. Things work differently today than they did just 20 years ago, and they will continue to change at unprecedented rates.

But as different as the world is, many things have not changed. The best and worst of human nature finds expression through digital technology. The principles of business and commerce remain very much the same as they have for decades, if not centuries. An organization that embraces the changes brought by digital technology will be even more successful if it remembers that it exists for the benefit of the humans it serves and gainfully employs, and the environment in which it operates.

While digital technology creates new opportunities and capabilities, many of the principles and practices that have been learned over decades are just as important as ever, if not more so. Governance, leadership, service, and quality are not uniquely digital issues. Simply putting the word ‘digital’ in front of them will not absolve any organization or leader from having to define and implement them.

Digital technologies may make that task easier, but experience has shown that they also introduce more levels of complexity, volatility, and uncertainty. In most cases, the best way to achieve excellence is to rely on those things that will last beyond the most recent wave of technology innovation, and not to assume that new technology, having solved its own problems, will be able to solve yours.

Digital and IT strategy is a means for real-world organizations to find better ways of meeting the needs of real-life communities using a combination of existing and emerging technologies. Some of these will require new practices and changes to the prevailing culture, but many will rely on existing practices and approaches.

Strategy is not just about introducing innovation, but about building a future using a combination of new and existing methods. Some readers may expect this publication to be a revelation of the ‘next big thing’ in strategy; however, research for this guide has shown that successful organizations have been doing many things right, and that they should continue to do them. Often, we know those things that we should be doing, but aren’t, and ITIL 4: Digital and IT Strategy [and the other books in the ITIL 4 library] can serve as a guide to get you back on track. Our hope is that it will help your teams to explore new ways of working, view emerging technologies and innovation through a new lens, have more meaningful conversations, and ultimately provide better products and services for everyone in society.

David Cannon and Erika Flora, DITS Lead Editors

Originally published April 04 2021, updated April 04 2023