ITSM Misinformation and the (ITSM) Walking Dead

ITSM Misinformation

Recently the question again arose, in the Back2ITSM Facebook group, as to whether “zombie ITSM” is a thing. My emphatic response was, “Oh yeah, it’s a thing”. The viral effects of misinformation about IT service management (ITSM) that rot the brains of those that accept “guidance” from those with only enough “knowledge” to be dangerous. The shadowy things lurking within your ITSM design, eating resources, and consuming humans as they work harder not to follow practices than they would if they followed them. The bureaucratic, over-engineered, over-designed, constraint-laden adaptations that suck the life out of provider and customer alike. These represent just some of the scenarios facing all too many at work every day as they navigate their particular iteration of the zombie experience (ZX) thanks to the ITSM misinformation.

I want to offer to be your guide and walk through a few examples, and perhaps arm you with a few zombie-fighting implements to help you better survive if any of them remind you of your own day-to-day. Stay close…

Have you ever been told that your business must do something because ITIL/Agile/DevOps, etc. 'says so'? If the answer is ‘yes,’ you've been exposed to the zombie experience virus… though most people don’t realize it. #ITSM Share on X

ZX 1: The (ITSM Misinformation) Virus

All too often, the zombie effect on ITSM begins with misinformation that spreads like a virus, carried by those unknowingly affected by it, moving from person to person and embedding itself in your organization.

Have you ever been told that your business must do something because ITIL/Agile/DevOps, etc. “says so”? In the past ten years, have you been given ‘training’ that tells you ITIL still stands for “IT Infrastructure Library” or that you must adopt every process and practice it has? Or that if you are “doing Agile,” you don’t need change management (enablement)? Or that if you’re “doing DevOps,” you don’t need ITSM at all? If any of these symptoms (or many others) garner a ‘yes’, you have indeed been exposed (to this ITSM misinformation)… though most people don’t realize it.

This is what makes this form of the ZX so insidious; it tricks you into believing you’re doing the right thing, even when the outcomes of doing it are not those your business or customers need or desire. But how do you combat something that has been accepted as normal? By wielding what is so often the best weapon: evidence.

When the outcomes of your practices are not reaching the level your business requires, there are reasons, even if they’ve not been identified yet. #ITSM Share on X

When the outcomes of your practices are not reaching the level your business requires, there are reasons, even if they’ve not been identified yet. If you’re “meeting your SLAs” but your customers are still not happy, or the business needs updates completed in three days, but your support teams tell you they can’t do it in less than ten, or people in your Teams chats are discussing certain activities they just cannot get done, you may be seeing the symptoms of “the virus.” Examine your numbers. Re-evaluate your measurements. Walk the workflows or activities your people are performing. You may find these symptoms are caused by something someone was told where they had to do it that way, but in reality it makes no sense to do it that way… or at all.

Then, research how this happened. Was the guidance from a verifiably legitimate source? If so, was it interpreted and adopted as it should have been for your organization? Should it have been adopted in the first place? Identifying these things can lead to a cure for ITSM misinformation, or at least a way to better manage the symptoms.

ZX 2: Lurking in the Shadows

Hidden behavior exists everywhere there are people; it’s an inevitable extension of group dynamics. Put people together, and there’ll always be some that engage in activities that are not aligned with the rules that have been established. I use the term ‘rules,’ but actually mean anything from informal moral expectations to formal regulations, laws, and practices. Put more simply, anytime you have rules, you eventually have rule breakers.

Anytime you have rules, you eventually have rule breakers – Michael Keeling #ITSM Share on X

Shadow activities typically occur when an approved process or practice, that an organization expects to be followed, is in some way considered to be unworkable by some (or even all) of those expected to comply with it. The reasons people choose to ignore or bypass expected behavior and do something else are myriad; there’s no one answer to the question of “why?”.

Ever eat at your desk – even though the policy is not to? Take home office supplies? Cheat on a diet? Turn on the red traffic light even though the sign said not to, or any of countless similar actions? So, why did you do that? The answers to this question will be the same ones that explain why shadow activities happen. Understanding this is a key first step, since if you grasp this you should also understand the natural corollary: you really can’t prevent such behavior, you can only mitigate it – because you should never assume having a rule, process, practice, etc. in place to be enough to ensure compliance. That way lies disappointment – and zombies. And there is an additional challenge to this ZX: both zombies and those trying to survive are prominent players.

This is because there are two main causes behind the shadows: resistance to your ‘rules’ because there is truly a better way to do something, but “normal” business channels have prevented it from being approved (survivors), or resistance born of an intentional or unintentional misinterpretation of your ‘rules’ fostered by the perception that the hidden way is better (zombies). In either case, such activities can remain in place for years without being detected because, by their very nature, they’ll result in (at least the appearance of) the same outcomes as the ways of working that the business has approved.

The best way to begin uncovering shadow activities is to assume they’re there and actively look for them; they’re hidden, after all, so finding them may take a bit of unconventional investigation. For example, most organizations now have a number of internal social media mechanisms. Since we love to commiserate, there is a tendency many have to share things there that they otherwise wouldn’t, often doing that when discussing corporate policies and practices. Another thing to watch for will probably seem counterintuitive: watch your metrics for any areas that are statistically better than others following the same rules or process. Yes, better. Why? Because if everyone is following the same process yet some seem to be producing significantly (again, statistically) better results, chances are good that everyone is in fact not following the same process. The tendency when seeing such results is to simply say, “Why can’t the rest of you do this!” It’s another flavor of ITSM misinformation.

The best way to begin uncovering shadow activities is to assume they’re there and actively look for them – Michael Keeling #ITSM # servicedesk Share on X

My advice is to take such results with a proper pinch of salt and find out just how they’re being achieved before accepting they’re as good as they appear.

ZX 3: The Omega Man Experience

Is your organization so entrenched in bureaucracy and mired in constraints that all anyone can do is just get through the day, shuffling between endless, fruitless meetings and performing activities that result in no value – and yet your coworkers accept this as ‘normal’? Do you spend your day killing off zombie activities only to find twice as many have taken their place? Welcome to the Omega Man experience, the all too common result of not addressing zombies when “the virus” first begins to take effect (back in ZX 1).

Some folks in this position may have witnessed (and even tried to prevent) this scenario; many find themselves playing the part because they’re made part of an “improvement effort.” Most will feel they’re the only one left that isn’t “zombified” – though typically they are not, even if they don’t know there are others like themselves.

Once more, there is no one factor to point to that explains how this happens to a business. However, there are a couple of common reasons. The first reaches into the dark past, all the way to the 1990s…

This is where the ITSM history most people are familiar with stems from: the early days of ITIL (don’t groan, you know it’s true). Regardless that many practices ITIL put to paper were invented and utilized well before ITIL came to be, it’s there that so many saw them “formalized” and learned of them. Unfortunately, that formalization contained a great deal of, albeit unintended, rigidity and bureaucracy (as well as ITSM misinformation) that you still see applied even today. Exacerbating this, next came training and consulting organizations that further cemented conceptions that were to become ingrained and extremely difficult to overcome, even those that changing ways of doing business should have left far behind. Add to this the explosion of social media and the ability for anyone with an internet connection to purport being an “expert,” even when they were nothing of the sort.

Regardless of your #ITSM zombie experience you can survive, and even prevail, if you’re willing to take up the right approach and fight back… here's how. Share on X

Any organization that did not recognize and overcome these causes likely ended up at some point getting drunk on processes and otherwise opening the gates to the zombie hoards. And, once so many have succumbed, it’s so much more difficult to recover from.

There is still hope though, if you can find some other survivors in your organization that can join you in forming a community that can begin to foment change (though if your organization is quite small you may be able to start on your own). Find small things that you can change for the better and show the powers that be it can be done. Don’t try to defeat all the zombies at once – you can’t and will only end up getting eaten. Coming back from the brink is a slow process, but it can be done if you’re brave enough.

Regardless of your zombie experience (through ITSM misinformation), you can survive, and even prevail, if you’re willing to take up the right approach and fight back. Just remember, you’re not alone…

If you liked the ITSM Misinformation article, these other ITSM articles might be helpful.

Michael Keeling
Service Management Lead at DXC Technology

Michael has been providing consulting and guidance related to IT Operations and Service Management to enterprise level organizations in many industries for more than 25 years. He began his IT career in Operations and has extensive background in a wide range of IT practices and concepts.  He promotes a reality and evidence based approach to Service Management, tempered with a degree of humor and relatable analogy that he believes helps others better understand what otherwise tend to be very dry topics.

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