Explore, like DORA
Or: Your product has more in common with other sectors than your organisation can think.
I’ll start with a confession - I am a collector, not of things but experiences. If I haven’t tried, done, tasted, drunk, seen, experienced, or heard of something, then given any opportunity, I will try it.
As a result, this condition has found me working worldwide in many different sectors. While I still have to analyse the cause, the journey is fantastic.
But, on this journey, while building products, I have, time and time again, heard a version of this phrase:
“In this highly regulated industry, we are required to do….”
This, or versions of it, are used as a stick to tell newcomers (me) how I/you cannot possibly do that here.
The motivations are complex but range from teams that have the role of reducing corporate risk to people demanding you follow a process.
In my career, I have been lucky to work across many of these so-called “highly regulated industries”, and I want to share anecdotal and practical evidence as to why this phrase should go in the bin. I’ll also get you to test this for your sector using Dora.
Then, I’ll show you how to take your product in your “highly regulated sector” to the next level.
Why do we have regulations?
The UK National Audit Office says:
“Regulation is used for various purposes, such as to protect and benefit people, businesses and the environment, and to support economic growth.”
We rely on following regulations to help us have a fair playing field to look after our customers, their money, data, and safety. To ensure fairness and much more when we develop our products.
So, most reasonable people would say that it isn’t the regulations that create the challenge.
Where, then, is the problem?
The challenge comes in applying regulations—the process by which individuals, groups and organisations interpret how to follow them.
The challenge grows from a strong preference to hire people from within your organisation's sector because of their experience. Experience is a practical and valuable commodity to acquire and necessary in many roles. However, there is a downside to this. As the depth of knowledge grows, so does the height of the walls between you and other sectors, preventing people from seeing what happens elsewhere.
This feedback loop also brings with it a mentality that we do it like this here, and when challenged, you’ll hear the phrase we shared earlier.
These regulations show up in curious ways. Stage gate reviews, committees, heavy procedures to get software live, large requirements documents, and project plans that take > 12 months to execute. Do you hear people talking about Wagile? That is likely some of these processes at work.
Naturally, only some of these processes are related to regulations; many also exist because a part of your organisation wants to achieve a goal like restricting spending or accounting for tax purposes. But whether poorly implemented laws or incomprehensible local rules, both stop you from delivering the right product for your customers and organisation.
Champion the regulation
I want you to celebrate the regulation but challenge the process. Let's look at the evidence I have for why I believe this to be true.
Here are some of the sectors I have worked in, the key regulations that governed us and where we could still innovate by climbing up and looking over the walls into other sectors.
Manufacturing - I started on a machine shop floor where the UK Factories Act 1961 applied, and we built products that needed to conform to the CE mark.
We looked in the defence sector (Martin Baker Ejector Seats) and consumer electronics (Linn Hi-Fi) to make Desoutter a beacon of UK manufacturing excellence and make our products faster and cheaper.
Telecoms - At Ionica, a Cambridge start-up working on IT development, we were regulated by Ofcom and the Home Office because telecoms are considered critical national infrastructure.
We stole ideas from manufacturing to build fault diagnosis products and created physical and software products inspired by car manufacturing for our call centre.
Finance - At American Express, I built global B2B financial services products regulated by everyone, including the FSA and US GAAP.
We developed digital banking products that borrowed from the best iPhone apps to minimise data entry while preventing errors and reducing our financial risk. We learned from advertising how to tag and applied this to Know Your Customer data to help us prove to regulators that our process had followed the law.
Energy - Working with Shell to build a product team in the Ofgen green home energy world.
Working with the product team and their internal compliance group enabled us to use best practices from any industry, not just copy how other energy companies do it.
Government - Working with the UK Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to deliver a new capability to manage national planning services. Regulated by (amongst others):
Infrastructure Act 2015
Housing and Planning Act 2016
Environment Act 2021
But once we understood what was regulated and after applying GDPR, we were free to organise information to make it easy to use, reduce errors and speed up the process—borrowing from the best consumer-facing websites and designs to create an intuitive, error-free, visible operation.
I have heard the phrase and seen the same symptoms in airlines, train companies, data brokers, media, broadcasting, retail and more. I hope you see a theme emerging, but let's look at your sector.
Please gather some data about your sector and try this out yourself. But first, why and what?
DevOps Research & Assessment (DORA) aims to understand the capabilities that drive software delivery and operations performance. DORA helps teams apply those capabilities, leading to better organisational performance.
They have an online calculator to help you see how your software product development compares to others by sector. Click the link and test it out for your team. https://dora.dev/quickcheck/
Your sector is similar to mine.
But the crucial point is that DORA capture your organisation's sector. And they use you and all the other tens of thousands of checks to help them write the state of DevOps report.
In 2022, they reported the following key findings: That there were low, medium and high-performing teams in all sectors. There was no sector where the nature of that sector, the regulations, prevented teams from delivering excellent software.
I now use DORA at every opportunity I get. It is a quick empirical way to see how your organisation performs against others in your sector and provides honest advice on improving.
So, whether empirically or using data, I hope we have demonstrated opportunities for your organisation for you to explore.
How to challenge the process
I hope by now you, too, feel that it is possible to challenge these processes to benefit your products, customers and organisation.
There are four areas you can take away to work on; we’ll go into more detail below.
Compliance is your friend
Get to know the regulations
Look at your team
Compliance is your friend.
Firstly, make friends with your local compliance team. In most larger organisations, they have the responsibility of ensuring compliance with the regulations. The costs of not meeting them are prohibitive, hence the hiring of these teams.
But here is the big secret: most compliance teams don’t know how the organisation operates, so they implement controls that help them meet the needs of their regulators, leaders or auditors, who don’t know your process.
So get to know them, find out what they are trying to achieve, and then see how you can more easily enable them to show compliance without needing to tie you up in knots.
Get to know the regulations.
This part is dry, but a great product team will know the core regulations they must adhere to. They’ll know where their knowledge extends to and who to contact for specialist help in new areas.
Getting to know does mean reading some of these. It's dry, but it helps you understand and educate your team on the intent of regulation, putting the power back in your group to build smart the first time.
Changing these processes, especially in a huge organisation, is challenging. You need to build trust, show you know your stuff, demonstrate how you have met the needs. Reduce the size and impact of changes you introduce. Reduce the risk, show that you can replicate this several times, and then you can ask for space to allow you to go faster.
Here is why this is so crucial. Extensive “regulation” in big companies has a death spiral associated with it. It goes like this:
The effort to go through the approval/launch/funding process is so expensive we had better have something worthwhile to put through. - The size of the initiative grows.
Wow, this significant initiative is costly and risky; we had better ensure that it is 100% checked at every stage to not waste money and ensure that we don’t upset our long-suffering customers. - Value delivery slows down.
My initiative isn’t happening soon because of a significant backlog. I had better make sure next year's programme has some big numbers attached to it to get it to the top of the list. - The size of the initiative grows.
So watch out when releases grow in size and work to establish new small agile deployments to continue to build trust with demonstrable value at low risk, and you’ll find your sweet spot.
Look at your team.
If your team are all industry insiders, consider what you might be missing. Take active steps to attract people from other industries, or take your team to visit different organisations to discover what they don’t know. Some of the best product innovations come from those who haven’t drunk your organisation's Kool-Aid.
So the next time you are asked to include a feature because “in this highly regulated environment, we…” get asking some questions, track it back to the company policy or government regulation. Then grab your team and go exploring, you’ll have fun on the journey and you’ll love the results.
I would love to hear about your experience delivering products in your “highly regulated environment.” Join the discussion below.
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