Monday, 8 February 2010

Is ITIL a Cargo Cult?

The Halo Effect
One of the must read management books on my list of all time greats is Phil Rosenzweig's 'The Halo Effect'

In some ways you could describe it as an anti-management book in that it debunks the claims made by most of the  best selling management books to know the secrets of long term management success. "Good to Great" is still a wonderful inspiring read, but have you ever asked yourself  "What happened next?" in the organizations it praises? Do we still associate Fannie Mae with greatness?

Rosenzweig likens much management thinking  to what that great thinker Richard Feynman called Cargo Cult Science.

Cargo Cults

During WW2 islanders in the southwest Pacific saw troops form both sides of the conflict descend on their islands, build airstrips, install radio stations and call down aircraft to deliver supplies.

When the troops moved on the islanders built non functioning copies of the airstrips and the equipment they had seen in use, and  they copied the behaviour of the troops in the belief that they too would be able to call down goods from the gods or their own ancestors.

Although the intervention of the interlopers changed their behaviour they were actually confirming a view the islanders already held - that they would be rewarded if they behaved in the right way. In fact they thought the troops were usurping the benefits that were actually meant for them.

An intelligent reader, such as yourself, can probably see where I'm going with this...

Is ITIL a Cargo Cult on an  Island Near You?

ITIL qualifies as a cargo cult if::
  • There are  people who genuinely get benefit from an ITIL approach
  • The behaviour of those people appears alien to the islanders
  • The islanders copy the form of ITIL, but not the substance
  • The islanders' behaviour remains consistent with their old belief that they deserve rewards

Do People Get Benefit From ITIL?


Forget the crazy claims about absurd ROI that are fodder for Chokey the Chimp. 

Here are just some of the ways ITIL has benefited organizations that I know of from personal experience:
  • Reduction in actual headcount - not just notional savings of people hours
  • 75% in the time to fulfil requests
  • SLAs that the business believe in
  • Improved NFRs resulting in services designed to meet the customer need
  • Contracts rewritten to define the service, not the underlying technology
  • Changes rejected before work has started on building them, not the day before release
I know, normally I sound more cynical than sceptical about ITIL, but that doesn't mean I don't believe in ITIL's underlying value.

I could also mention the benefits it has brought to individuals, such as increased confidence to talk to the customer, higher salaries and greater job satisfaction, but I'm going to save that for a post about ITSM training.

Are These People Crazy?

Leaving aside the rather worrying tendencies of some people to go overboard in their belief that ITIL holds the answers to all questions I think there is much in the behaviour and attitudes of those who deliver benefit based on ITIL that is distinctively different., and can seem crazy to outsiders. 
  • They seek out bad news
  • They use metrics and targets
  • They talk to customers and users
  • They admit what they don't know
  • They look for best practice outside of their own IT department
  • They believe that the mechanisms of ITSM matter
  • They don't believe the answers are to be found in technology
  • They use a distinctive language and argue about what words really mean
  • They believe IT staff should have non technical training
  • They adapt ITIL where the guidance is currently insufficient
  • They seek help when they need it
They do all these things and more

Do People Copy the Form but not the Substance?

You bet they do. 

These are the people who seek out ready to use templates for SLAs. These are the people who want metrics to prove their success, not so they can see where they need to do better. These are the people who call in external consultants to tell them what they are already doing is fine. These are the people who argue endlessly over the semantics of an ITIL term without ever trying to understand what the authors actually meant by it. These are the people who think that putting in a service management tool will solve all their problems. These, above all, are the people who believe they can leave out vital great chunks of ITIL in the name of adapting and adopting it.

These are the people who think renaming the Help Desk as a Service Desk was actually important

I could go on.

Is This Consistent with their Old Behaviour and Believes?

I'm afraid that it is. These are the islander who will always latch onto a fad and copy it. These are the people who will exploit any idea if it promises to bring them rewards. These are the people who believe that they are delivering a good service and the customer should be grateful.

Why Did The Gods Deliver The Goods?

Looking at it from an islander's perspective why did the rewards come for the troops and not for them?

Maybe it was because before the troops came to the island they had already developed the capabilities and tools and lines of communication needed to build the supply chain..

Maybe they simply knew what they were doing.

A couple of links

Chokey the Chimp on Crap Factoids

The ITskeptic on ITIL as a cult

P.S. I'm sure I've seen another post somewhere suggesting the link between ITIL and a cargo cult, but the only sites I can find are about cargo cult agile, not ITIL. If anyone comes across a link that pre dates this one can you let me know.


  1. ITIL didn't benefit those organisations, process improvement did. ITIL was but one tool. You know that and you mean that, but the wording says "how ITIL benefited..."

  2. Rob,
    I'm sure I'm on record as saying that I don't believe ITIL actually created any novel IP, so yes you right at one level.

    I honestly believe that at the time those benefits wouldn't have happened without ITIL as the catalyst or, perhaps, as the cloud condensation nuclei. Once upon a time ITIL did serve as a meaningful narrative, once upon a time it told a clear and recognisable story about how the ITIL world differed from the non-ITIL world. Don't forget there was a time when ideas like six sigma and lean didn't penetrate to the dark depths of the data centre. Who was really talking about ITIL and CSI even four years ago?

    So yes, those same benefits could have been delivered as part of another initiative, but would they have been?

    And thinking about it I now use ISO 20000 in the way I used to use ITIL.