Agile vs ITSM: What Do They Have to Do With Each Other?

Written by Mark Hillyard

Scrum, and other agile development methodologies have been around for quite a few years now.  Project Managers and Developers across every size and type of organization have embraced these frameworks to help them become more self-organized, efficient, and effective.  But what about the IT organization?  Does ITSM have room for Agile/Scrum?

The Case for Scrum in ITSM

What developers and PMs have known for a long time is that Scrum (or any other Agile methodology) gives you a lot of flexibility and increases productivity as your team pumps out iteration after iteration of an application or system.  If your organization is using any of these frameworks, you have almost certainly witnessed the higher quality, faster turnaround, and increased communication from your development teams.

These things alone are reason enough to consider Scrum for other areas, but where does it fit within the ITSM model?  The most obvious place is in Continual Service Improvement.  This phase of the ITIL lifecycle is often overlooked.  Let’s face it.  The Service Desk is usually just trying to keep their collective heads above water, and DevOps and System Administrators are just happy to have things working as designed.  But CSI is a crucial part of transforming IT into a trusted business partner.

So, what’s the analog?  Well, the graphic below shows where Scrum methods mesh very well into the CSI model.

The CSI Register is very well suited to become a Scrum Product Backlog.  It can be appropriately prioritized through Sprint Planning, and Continual Service Improvement lends itself very well to self-organizing teams (a hallmark of the Scrum methodology).  Once a set of goals is established, it becomes very simple to create a sprint backlog, set target dates, and begin a sprint.

There is another great benefit to using Scrum for Continual Service Improvement.  It forces the team into a time box.  ITIL is not particularly prescriptive when it comes to timelines, nor is it specific as to how much we should undertake in a single CSI cycle.  Scrum fixes these issues instantly and effectively.  A sprint can be no more than 30 days (most are 1-2 weeks).  This will force your CSI team to establish a realistic set of goals that can be accomplished in a relatively condensed period of time.  And it puts an end date on the effort.  It eliminates the never-ending saga of trying to improve a system, while management, development and marketing continue to pile on more features and user interfaces.  We have a specific list of improvements, a self-organized team to tackle that list, and a realistic time constraint, which can serve to deflect demands for additional features.

Instead of being left with a nebulous expectation to ‘improve service delivery’, we have a measurable, time boxed, efficient system to deliver marked improvements, each ready to roll out at the end of the sprint.  We can be ready to go to Service Design, or even Service Transition with our shiny sprint results, and we have tackled a meaningful portion of the CSI register, which is visible to our management, our customers (the business), and our own peers.  And that can become motivation for additional self-organizing teams to jump on the bandwagon and bite of another piece of the CSI pie.

This is really just the beginning of how an Agile mentality can help improve IT service delivery and management.  Every facet of the ITIL lifecycle can benefit from Scrum methods and concepts.  Don’t be afraid to step outside of the traditional uses of these frameworks.  They are meant to be organic and constantly evolving.  And as IT professionals, it is up to us to make the most of them.

Want to learn more?

Get into the weeds of how Agile & ITSM can work together with Erika Flora's full presentation on the subject.
Watch the video

Originally published May 05 2014, updated December 12 2019