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Is ITIL a fit for your organization's culture?

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Ron van Haasteren, International Culture Strategist , TopDesk

Organizations need structure and predictability. But when you impose too much structure, and put procedures in place simply to have those procedures in place, your organization becomes too rigid. This is how structured processes such as ITIL become obstacles to change. 

That's not to say that ITIL has no value. The framework can help you build a service-driven, customer-focused culture. But as you implement ever more formal ITIL processes in your organization, beware of implementing inflexibility along with it.

Your employees will resist change if they think it doesn’t benefit them. Barriers quash individuals' initiative on your teams, leaving them feeling boxed in and unmotivated. Freedom is essential if you want your workforce to be engaged with the company.

You need to limit barriers. Give employees enough freedom to fail, because that's when people learn and improve. Here's what your team needs to keep top of mind as they apply ITIL processes.

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How ITIL affects organizational culture

ITIL is structure, and structure of any kind can affect your organization's culture. If you do it right, ITIL's benefits can include improved user satisfaction, increased service orientation for IT staff, standards for best practices, reduced costs, and a clear delineation among organizational roles.

There is no surefire universal recipe for implementing ITIL. Developing your people and organization in parallel is the key to reducing resistance to the change. When considering an ITIL implementation, here are four questions you should ask:

  • What are my underlying motives for implementing ITIL?
  • What are the key factors for implementation success in my organization?
  • What will deployment look like, and how should any issues with ITIL rollout status be addressed?
  • What are the outcomes or benefits of implementation?

Don't move forward with ITIL adoption until you've answered all of these questions.

What employees want

Before implementing ITIL, consider the aspirations of the users: your employees. They want problems solved quickly, with less bureaucracy, and that goes against ITIL. The truth is, your employees will probably view ITIL as slow, clunky, and demanding.

But some organizations require the framework and detailed structure that ITIL provides for standardization. Likewise, you need to identify and fill gaps if you want to increase productivity and reduce redundancies.

When teams work toward the same goals, the quality of the services they provide improves significantly. That’s why ITIL is important: Standardized work can improve employee experiences. The framework helps with audit capabilities, and for tracking information associated with a help desk case. You can also track statistics and outcomes related to individual departments.

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How to determine the success of ITIL

The success of your ITIL deployment depends, in part, on the degree to which management gets involved. If executives aren't uniformly committed, organizational stability may be compromised.

Every manager and executive must be dedicated to the process. Process owners must become advocates for the processes they are leading, and they must secure buy-in from leadership to ensure the project's success.

Many issues that arise in an ITIL deployment are related to miscommunication between management and users. That means process owners need to do a better job helping others navigate what they are leading.

But leadership commitment is just one part of a successful outcome. Even when leadership buys into a major program like ITIL, the organization's culture can derail it. You must include some rank-and-file employees in the engagement of all implementations, as appropriate. This is what mature, forward-looking organizations do: They keep the framework and goals in front of the organization over the long term.

And managers must act as a continuous, driving force during and after an ITIL implementation. To win with your deployment and ongoing efforts, employees and managers must experience the value of ITIL firsthand. ITIL is successful in businesses when there are improved processes to show for the effort and investment, or it's not worth the effort at all.

When these implementations and investments aren't supported, users will go around the systems you've put in place. For example, instead of engaging the framework, users may go directly to contacts they know in the IT department to get what they want.

How ITIL attempts to stay relevant

In a world where velocity is critical, why is the tradeoff between flexibility and process worth it? Velocity is great to focus on. But never forget that the work you do is done for the core business: the customer. Don’t be afraid to lose velocity when during a sprint you need to change course to fit the need of the customer.

Even while ITIL strives to grow with its latest round of advancements through version 4, many simply don't care for the rigidness of such a process or approach. This is one reason why the agile approach to development has ballooned so dramatically in recent years.

Users want to respond as needed to issues and crises as they arise. While ITIL can limit liability and provide a great framework for building and designing processes, agile is the playbook by which many organizations want to operate.

ITIL can make it more difficult to respond to incidents quickly, and it is a more rigid way to work. In addition, some organizations that have adopted ITIL report that their work has become more cumbersome and inefficient—even bureaucratic and inconvenient.

There's no way around it: ITIL leads to more procedures and routines. But that's not always a negative. A majority of respondents in a recent study said that formal processes in an organization can help the workday become more predictable, regulated, and procedural. Likewise, the majority of the respondents in the study said they prioritized delivering quality to the customers over solving incidents quickly.

Increasingly, ITIL is being combined with a more agile mindset to bring organizations the best of both worlds. 

Obstacles to overcome

However, some barriers to ITIL likely will remain. Some of the most common are:

  • Lack of management commitment
  • Failure to train employees
  • Immature organizational culture
  • Implementation that takes too long

This final concern means that the knowledge gained during implementation gives you the opportunity to think about whether or not you could have taken on the project differently. During the project, you must regularly check in to ensure you're on the right track.

If employees view ITIL as highly dominated by theory and, therefore, difficult to understand, you'll need to educate them as to how and why to use the framework in practice.

Education can influence organizational culture by affecting how employees interact, and by getting them accustomed to ITIL terminology. But education in ITIL will only succeed if the workforce is willing to listen. The way you educate people should fit your organization's culture. It may be an open conversation, or more of a teacher and student type of discussion.

You're not above failure

The ITIL framework is time-consuming to implement, even when all the stars are aligned. But a lack of realistic goals, missing work instructions, unengaged process owners, or issues with time and staff management will all reduce your chances of success.

Lack of management commitment during and after implementation is another considerable barrier to a successful ITIL implementation. Managers should adapt the processes to support the organization, include employees in decision making, and increase their awareness and understanding of the ITIL framework. After all, if organizational leaders aren't buying into this concept, why should employees?

If any part of the process fails along the way, for any reason, the organization is not above failure. And if the process fails, people involved in the process might see themselves as failures.

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