I’ve been writing and talking for the last year or so about something called intelligent disobedience – the empowerment of employees to make decisions based on the best available information rather than blindly following generic rules. With my talks, blog, and white paper very much coming from a service desk perspective. This makes sense, in as much as the service desk would be the most obvious and visible place to both practice and benefit from well-managed intelligent disobedience practices.

But the ideas behind intelligent disobedience are – or should be – part of a bigger picture of limitation, innovation, priority, and adaptation. And many of the terms and concepts that can help to build that bigger picture are familiar to those versed in ITIL. However, seeing the connections and continuity is less common.

We can see that picture shaped from constraint space, course corrections, and more – influenced by Patterns of Business Activity (PBAs), Critical Business Periods (CBPs), Vital Business Function (VBFs) and the grand Old Duke of York. I’m sure you know all these ideas – maybe not by some of my terms, but the traditional ITIL ones are probably familiar.

Constraint Space

One of service strategy’s tasks in setting direction and policy is identifying, maintaining, and ensuring awareness of what ITIL refers to as “design space.” It’s a good term, but the idea (and the benefits) apply far more widely than to service design, so let’s use “constraint space” as the wider term. We often think of “constraint’” as a bad thing – fencing us in and limiting our freedom. But in the IT service management (ITSM) context, building and maintaining a constraint space for design, transition, and operations to function within - in normal circumstances - is beneficial and makes life easier for everyone.

Instead of the need to assess and choose from every possible approach, setting a constraint space gives a limited range of acceptable approaches. By restricting options, we usually also restrict time taken and costs incurred. The more tightly constrained, then logically the quicker, cheaper, and probably safer and easier the service lifecycle should be.

Think of how much easier it is to plan a journey when your company’s travel rules mandate taking the train between Newcastle and London: no need for evaluating flight prices or how long the drive would take you. Just accept the limitations, book the train, and get on with things.

Of course, you can’t foresee every situation – and that’s why concepts like course correction and intelligent disobedience are needed to balance the maximized constraint space approach. With an informed understanding of both, management should be able to create an environment that recognizes the benefits of maximizing standard approaches but allowing for innovation when exception conditions are encountered.

Let’s go back to that train journey to London. You can likely think of a few situations where you would feel entitled to ignore the rules and travel a different way:

  • Lots of equipment/samples to carry with you – this might justify going by car
  • Early or late meetings, where sticking to a train would need a hotel stay – maybe the early or late flight then becomes the cheaper option overall?
  • Disruptions to the train service, when an alternative method of travel is unavoidable.

Course Correction and Wiggle Room

All these scenarios are actually predictable (to prove this, I’ve just predicted them). So a good constraint space will come with parameters for justified course-correction, the kind of variation you might expect and an understanding of what degree of variation is allowed – in fact encouraged. In familiar parlance we might call that the “wiggle room” that all parties know can be used when needed.

Course correction refers specifically to the need to readjust a journey – or especially a transition – that has begun but seems to be veering slightly away from the expected path, but near enough for it to be clear how it can be brought back on track.

Beyond the Wiggle

Intelligent disobedience is a stage past this – and is needed for the unforeseen, requiring empowered staff to innovate when the situation seems to need it. The concept can – and should – apply to any aspect of ITSM. Done well it can save, for example, a service transition from failing or can make a live service deliver real business value rather than just keep going.

As always with the concept though, learning is required in order to build a suitable management environment that both supports the desired innovation and empowers staff to deliver it. This rests on training and cultural understanding. And – of course – it all needs to match to the risk profile that the business and the customers feel is right.

Has your IT organization succeeded with the use of constraint space, wiggle room, and/or intelligent disobedience? I’d love to hear your stories.

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ITSM Consultant at

In 23 years working for the UK government, Ivor Macfarlane moved from forestry to ITSM via prisons, warehousing, and training. In 1999 he became an ITSM consultant and trainer, as a freelancer and directly for companies. He was an author for ITIL (versions 1, 2 & 3), ISO20000 and ITSM library and an ITIL examiner since 1991. An active contributor to social media and blogs, he is well known at ITSM events and has presented around the world (40 countries so far and on every continent except Antarctica). In addition to his work as an independent consultant, he also works alongside ITSM.Tools as an Associate Consultant.

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[…] Intelligent disobedience is a concept that can – and should – apply to any aspect of ITSM. And done well it can deliver significant benefits. See more here.  […]