Agile and IT service management

This post was originally written as part of the Government Service Design Manual while I was working for the UK Cabinet Office. Since my original in 2013 it was improved upon by several others I’m republishing it here under the terms of the Open Government licence.

The Digital by Default standard says that organisations should (emphasis on operate added):

Put in place a sustainable multidisciplinary team that can design, build and operate the service, led by a suitably skilled and senior service manager with decision-making responsibility.

This implies a change to how many organisations have traditionally run services, often with a team or organisation building a service separate from the one running it. This change however does not mean ignoring existing good practice when it comes to service management.

Agile and service management

The principles of IT service management (ITSM) and those of agile do not necessarily conflict – issues can arise however when organisations implement rigid processes without considering wider service delivery matters, or design and build services without thinking about how they will be operated.

The agile manifesto makes the case for:

It is too easy to position service management as opposed to agile as traditional service management practices can be viewed as focusing on processes, tools, documentation, planning and contract negotiation – the items on the right hand side of the points above.

However, the agile manifesto goes on to say:

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

To build and run a successful service you will need to work on suitable processes and manage third party relationships. Using existing service management frameworks (especially as a starting point) is one approach to this problem.


ITIL (the Information Technology Infrastructure Library) is one such framework. ITIL does a particularly good job of facilitating shared language. For instance it’s definition of a service is:

A service is a means of delivering value to customers by facilitating outcomes customers want to achieve.

The current version of ITIL currently provides 5 volumes and 26 processes describing in detail various aspects of service management:

Service Strategy

Service Design

Service Transition

Service Operation

Continual Service Improvement


ITIL also describes four functions that should cooperate together to form an effective service management capability.

The importance of implementation

The above processes and functions make for an excellent high level list of topics to discuss when establishing an operating model for your service, whether or not you adopt the formal methods. In many cases if you have well understood, well established and well documented processes in place for all of the above you should be in a good position to run your service.

When looking to combine much of the rest of the guidance on the service manual with ITIL or other service management frameworks it is important to challenge existing implementations. This is less about the actual implementation and more often about the problems that implementation was designed to originally solve.

An example – service transition

As an example ITIL talks a great deal about Service Transition – getting working functionality into the hands of the users of the service. This is a key topic for The Digital Service Standard too which says that teams should:

Make sure that you have the capacity and technical flexibility to update and improve the service on a very frequent basis.

GOV.UK for instance made more than 100 production releases during its first two weeks after launch.

This high rate of change tends to challenge existing processes designed for a slower rate of change. If you are releasing your service every month or every 6 months then a manual process (like a weekly or monthly in-person change approval board or CAB) may be the most suitable approach. If you’re releasing many times a day then the approach to how change is evaluated, tested and managed tends towards being more automated. This moves effort from occasional but manual activities to upfront design and automation work. More work is put in to assure the processes rather than putting all the effort into assuring a specific transition.

Service management frameworks tend to acknowledge this, for instance ITIL has a concept of a standard change (something commonly done, with known risks and hence pre-approved), but a specific implementation in a given organisation might not.

Other frameworks exist

It is important to note that other service management frameworks and standards exist, including some that are of a similar size and scope to ITIL:

Many organisations also use smaller processes and integrate them together. The needs of your service and organisation will determine what works best for you.

Problematic concepts

Some traditional language tends to cause some confusion when discussing service management alongside agile. It’s generally best to avoid the following terms when possible, although given their widespread usage this isn’t always possible. It is however worth being aware of the problems these concepts raise.


Projects tend to imply a start and an end. The main goal of project work is to complete it, to reach the end. Especially for software development the project can too often be viewed as done when the software is released. What happens after that is another problem entirely – and often someone else’s problem.

However when building services the main goal is to meet user needs These needs may change over time, and are only met by software that is running in production and available to those users.

This doesn’t mean not breaking work down into easily understandable parts, but stories, sprints and epics are much more suited to agile service delivery.

Business as usual

The concept of business as usual also clashes with a model of continuous service improvement. It immediately brings to mind before and after states, often with the assumption that change is both much slower and more constrained during business as usual. In reality, until you put your service in the hands of real users as part of an alpha or beta you won’t have all the information needed to build the correct service. And even once you pass the live standard you will be expected to:

continuously update and improve the service on the basis of user feedback, performance data, changes to best practice and service demand

Further reading