Three Key Lessons from ITIL® 4 High-velocity IT

High-velocity IT is ITIL®'s most progressive guidance. It is for practitioners in IT service management (ITSM) who work in organizations adopting approaches and technologies such as Lean value stream mapping, Agile, DevOps, CI/CD, SRE, and ChatOps. If you are such a practitioner, it assumes you are familiar with traditional working methods and want to contribute in more digitally-enabled environments. You also care about having meaningful and rewarding work.

I was the Lead Editor for ITIL® 4 High-velocity IT. I wrote half of it and incorporated specialized contributions from twenty industry experts for the other half. This article is based on my insider knowledge of the true intent behind the publication. It highlights topics close to my heart. Some of these are not in the official module (2020) but would be if I were to publish a new edition. As such, this is an unofficial refinement.

I want to give you some concepts to think about and some things to do. Given the space available for the article, I have restricted myself to three valuable lessons. We often talk about ways of working in IT. I have also chosen a way of thinking and a way of being. These lessons broadly apply whether you manage, deliver, or improve IT service. They are: focus on where you are going, take things step by step, and be human.

Way of thinking: focus on where you are going

High-velocity IT is built on a set of objectives. Your organization's objectives will differ from those of other organizations, and these will also change over time. My first recommendation is to discuss and decide your most important objective, then focus on that. Your value stream is only as strong as its weakest link, and this is what you should be focusing on. Although objectives are interrelated, working on too many at once is ineffective. Take it step by step.

We defined five objectives:

  • Value investments: making the right digital investments
  • Fast development: developing and deploying digital products and services quickly
  • Resilient operations: ensuring that products and services are resilient
  • Co-created value: helping the service consumer to realize value from the products and services
  • Assured conformance: demonstrating the activities conform with governance, risk, and compliance requirements.

After publication, I added a sixth objective related to the cost and effort involved: efficient IT solutions.

Highest priorities

As a research project from 2020-2023, I conducted about twenty polls in more than ten countries, mainly amongst ITSM practitioners, asking for their highest priority. The most consistent highest priority is co-created value, which is shorthand for "service" (take a look at Service-dominant Logic for the theory behind this). In second place we have fast development. You might think that High-velocity IT is mainly about fast development and deployment, but it is more nuanced than that. Velocity is also about direction, which equates with valuable investments. In other words, what are you trying to achieve quickly?

Way of working: take things step by step

I mentioned this in the previous section: "Focus on your highest priority and take things step by step."

This is closely related to another pillar in High-velocity IT – the belief that organizations are "complex adaptive systems" in which behavior can only be predicted with confidence at a small scale. At a larger scale, when multiple people, teams, departments, and partners are involved, behavior emerges unpredictably. This means that complexity has to be dealt with, not managed, despite the common managerial desire to control the organization. Look at the Cynefin sense-making framework for the theory behind this, but be warned, you are taking the "red pill." You are risking dramatically transforming your perspective and being confronted with the true nature of our work – namely that we often simply don't know the answer. For what it's worth, I took the red pill in 2013, and I am still grateful to another future ITIL® 4 lead editor, Christian F. Nissen, for supplying the medication. It was liberating.

Complexity theory in practice

What does this mean in practice? First, assess the degree of predictability in your environment. What is known, knowable, and unknowable? This insight determines your next step. There are variations, but here are the three most common courses of action.

If the situation is highly predictable, with no need for further investigation or analysis, apply "best practice." A password reset is a good example of best practice. Another example is deployment in a highly automated cloud-native DevOps environment.

If you think the situation needs more information to decide and – crucially – that the information is knowable, then analyze the situation and apply "good practice." Good practice differs from best practice. With good practice, there are several valid ways to tackle the issue, and it is up to the practitioner's professional judgment to decide or advise. A workaround is an example of good practice. There could be several equally valid workarounds, with or without IT, to help users resume their work while the underlying IT problem is being solved.

These two options are familiar territory for the ITSM practitioner. They are comfortingly logical. If-then-else. Either you know from experience that best practice works or are confident in your ability to decide on the right good practice when enough information is available. But what if the desired information is unknowable? This is the fundamental shift in thinking: recognizing and accepting that you will only know what works after you have tried it in many cases. And it might not work. If-then-maybe. This is referred to as "emergent practice." In these cases, the approach is to conduct safe-to-fail experiments. Preferably multiple experiments in parallel, and executed independently to avoid groupthink. When an unfathomable incident occurs, ask an architect, engineer, and sysadmin each to suggest a hypothesis. Conduct the experiments with a backup plan in mind.

Leap of faith

Many experienced professionals immediately recognize the notion of emergent practice. They understand the intrinsic unpredictability of complex systems that comprise multiple interdependent parts provided by multiple interdependent parties. They know they regularly take justifiable gambles. For managers, however, this is often unsettling. They are expected – and have been taught – to be "in control" but are now confronted with uncertainty. It is a leap of faith for them to trust their team members to gamble. But if your people have to bet, you'd better bet on your people.

Way of being: be human

The previous section ended with betting on people, and many topics in High-velocity IT are related to people. For example, Lean culture, psychological safety, stress prevention, ethics (including the context of artificial intelligence), reconstructing for service agility, blameless post-mortems, and key behavior patterns. The underlying message – within sensible limits, of course – is to trust professionals to do their job. But, with the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) as a disruptive factor in the workplace and beyond, what will jobs in ITSM entail?

Fortunately for us in ITSM, service work is social work. Humans are unpredictable, and you must act on the spot in an intricate dance between two or more people. Service interactions are transactions, but the underlying human relationship enables them. And, at least for now, AI is more about transactions than relationships.

Working with AI

While AI has significant analytical capabilities, many aspects of human cognition, emotion, ethics, and physical interaction cannot be replicated. So, let AI help you with your analytical tasks and focus instead on your human capabilities, such as wisdom in ambiguous situations, understanding the context in decision-making, overseeing the consequences of actions, using intuition in complex situations, introducing novelty in innovations, ensuring morals in our values, applying empathy in relationships, and even the basic physicality of dealing with other human beings in service interactions. This combination leads to better objective decision-making and problem-solving, the desired subjective IT service experience, and, in turn, the perceived value of IT. Without getting too philosophical, perception is reality, even in IT.


To briefly recap, the first lesson emphasizes setting clear objectives and focusing on the weakest link in the value stream. The second lesson recommends a step-by-step approach to improvements that acknowledges the complexity of adaptive systems and promotes safe-to-fail experiments in unpredictable scenarios. The third lesson underscores the enduring importance of the human element in IT service interactions despite the rise of AI.

This work continues to inspire me. I believe IT service management is changing significantly, and I hope you can join it. ITSM will change – it might just change without you.

Further reading

About the author

Mark Smalley helps IT people understand service. He also helps writers write better books. Writer, speaker, consultant and bridge builder at Smalley.IT. He helps people discover where they are and to visualize where they want to be. His main area of interest is the management of IT systems and services. Mark was Lead Editor of ITIL® 4 High-velocity IT, and has authored or co-authored eleven other books. He has contributed to many bodies of industry knowledge, and has spoken at hundreds of events in more than thirty countries.

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