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Fail fast and win: design sprint to success

3x2 fail fast

Forward-thinking retailers and brands are borrowing “fail fast” methods from the technology sector to innovate at pace.

Retailers have used forms of “trial and error” or “test and learn” for many years, but lately, the term “fail fast” is gaining currency among the nimblest and most forward-thinking operators.

Following the lead of technology companies, retailers have begun to adopt “fail fast” methodologies in the workplace to engender rapid innovation. It is an approach to business operations that embraces experimentation: some ideas will be successful while others will fail and provide learning opportunities.

Fail fast methods include product and design tests, internal system trials and “design sprints” – “the rapid implementation and iteration of a concept, product or scheme” within the workplace or outwardly for the customer, which enables a company to decide whether the idea is viable for mass dissemination or whether it needs to be altered or completely scrapped.

You have to look at development in terms of lots of incremental changes and learnings, rather than big enterprise-level projects

Becki Smith, director of marketing and ecommerce at N Brown Group

One method of testing is by using minimum viable products (MVPs). An MVP is a development technique within which a new product or digital initiative is developed with sufficient features to satisfy early adopters, but the final initiative is only designed and developed after feedback from MVP consultation and testing.

How to fail fast new

Design sprints are another popular method. This is a five-day process for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping and testing ideas internally or with customers.

Quick wins

For new brands failing fast may be second nature, but more established businesses are now starting to use these methodologies to combat the challenges of the current retail environment.

Becki Smith, director of marketing and ecommerce at N Brown Group, believes a fail fast culture is crucial: “As a retailer, it is important to figure out what is going to work for your customers quickly. You don’t have the luxury of spending six to 12 months on a long-term learning programme. You have to look at development in terms of lots of incremental changes and learnings, rather than big enterprise-level projects.”

Eight months into the implementation of its digital strategy, N Brown has used several fail fast measures to engage and attract its key demographic. Among the initiatives were an intelligence-based online style adviser algorithm, which increased the average number of items per order by 60%. N Brown also conducted a 10-week programme to map the customer journey across all its brands, and, from the 1,500 logged observations, found 245 ways to improve the customer experience.

Jonathan Wall, chief digital officer at Missguided, agrees that failing fast is necessary in today’s trading environment: “If you fail slow, in the end you will not exist in the business. As the retail world is moving faster than ever and all areas of fashion are being disrupted, I believe that the faster you can fail, the faster you can succeed.”

What does “fail fast” mean?

Fast fail means being willing to take a risk that may or may not work and really test if an idea has value, so what that means is that you are more willing to accept if something doesn’t work and be willing to embrace and test things that you haven’t done before”

Becki Smith, director of marketing and ecommerce at N Brown Group


“Failing fast means accepting three things: that you iterate to drive improvement; that you are committed to the rule of empirical data in deciding how to move forward and crucially that the way you work is appropriate in terms of collaboration and pace”

Sean McKee, director of ecommerce and customer experience at Schuh


“Fail fast is a new catchy buzz phrase. I think it essentially means not making the same mistakes twice”

Gareth Rees-John, multichannel director at Miss Selfridge


“Failing fast is seeking to give your customers what they want: the newness and relevancy that is really important to them in this fast world. Fundamentally fast fail is important because it fits with the customer trends that are changing so fast”

Jonathan Wall, chief digital officer at Missguided

Wall believes customer-centricity and data visibility are vital to fail fast success. He says sharing knowledge is paramount to reacting to rapid changes of customer demand and trends. For instance, product availability typically falls under the remit of product teams. However, sharing knowledge and data enables buying, merchandising, visual merchandising and UX (user experience) teams to display and market the right products effectively to customers. This full visibility of data allows the business to be more agile and effective.

It is about moving away from a world of big bets and pursuing one solution to find out that it has not worked

Jim Cruickshank, global head of digital and UX at Marks & Spencer

The fast pace of digital commerce and impatience of shoppers means businesses need to “learn how to constantly transform at pace”, believes Jim Cruickshank, global head of digital and UX at Marks & Spencer: “It is about moving away from a world of big bets and pursuing one solution to find out that it has not worked. Another company that has multiple concurrent experiments running on shorter timescales will arrive at the right answer five times faster than you have. 

“Fail fast culture should in theory save you a significant amount of money because you are finding the right answer cost effectively, so it is not risky or expensive. Any CFO should be a huge supporter of this methodology because many businesses will have far fewer big, lengthy and massively expensive projects going on.”

Miss Selfridge multichannel director Gareth Rees-John believes there is space in the industry for co-ordinated cross-functional teams who drive this change across all sectors of a fashion retail business from the digital teams to HR: “Retail is one industry where things haven’t changed radically in a long time. There is a lot of potential to think of a different way of taking the fail fast methodology to market in a retail context, whether that is new leadership structures or communication vehicles or use of technology to engage your colleagues. There is a vast amount of opportunity to have that culture in retail.”

Culture shock

Implementing a fail fast culture is not without challenges.

Former chief customer officer at House of Fraser David Walmsley says the biggest barrier is “legacy mindsets”: “One of the fundamental roles of a chief executive is to create a culture where there is permission to fail. Fail fast, but don’t fail stupid. To succeed, you have got to create a framework within which failure and success can happen at pace.”

Fail fast, but don’t fail stupid

David Walmsley, former chief customer officer at House of Fraser


Sean McKee, director of ecommerce and customer experience at Schuh, agrees: “It requires a business culture that is sufficiently flexible for people to work across functions and be agile with roadmaps, planning and priorities. It requires the culture to be supportive: that it is all right to fail – that failure is part of the process, as long as it is digested and informs where you head next.”

The size of the brand or company can also determine the culture, adds Rees-John: “Bigger businesses that are more complex and have more heritage will clearly find it more difficult to put years and years of well-practised delivery behind them. But if you are in a small business, there are fewer people to run things by, so they can be more open to change.”

Furthermore, Cruickshank believes the fail fast culture will help to attract the best staff: “When there are so many exciting start-up businesses out there employing this sort of entrepreneurial fail fast culture, adopting and being known to have one is already really important. Increasingly the most talented people see this as an expectation and will only work for a company that has a fail fast culture – so it feels like a necessity, rather than optional.”

For Rees-John the case for failing fast is clear: “It is a key opportunity for businesses to become more relevant quickly and stand above this overproliferated crowd of competition in the retail sector.”

As Cruickshank concludes: “It is about survival: learning how to fail fast and live in that world.”

The Drapers Verdict

The idea of failing fast can be daunting for businesses but this methodology should attract talent, improve customer engagement and mitigate risk and cost. In the fast-paced world of fashion, the behaviours of digital-savvy consumers require quick response to demand.

Working in a culture where failure is accepted should create more effective and efficient processes, and provide learning opportunities for the future. Failing fast is a necessary step in remaining relevant and generating innovation at the pace required to stay ahead. 

The future of fail fast

1 Fail fast will be integrated into society culturally rather than remaining in a predominantly technological, business and financial capacity.

2  If artificial intelligence will allow, it will be taken away from predominant human intervention. Judgement of success or failure could be decided by machines with targeted data and parameters.

3 Failing fast will become normalised for any function, in any company, in any sector for the UK working world and that will mean use of these methodologies will become the norm.


Readers' comments (1)

  • Amazon says ‘be right, most of the time’. Suggesting what you test needs to be well thought through and worth doing to start with. Failing is a learning event. Yet understanding why is still down to interpretation and successful analysis of root cause. Sadly, people have a habit of hiding their mistakes. That’s not a culture thing. It’s very human.

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