The importance of failing fast and moving on
Quick and easy innovation for a better customer experience
In 2013, John Lewis did something quite remarkable for the time. Amid all the hype about using the latest technology to give customers an enhanced shopping experience, the retail giant admitted that one of its innovations - introducing ‘magic’ virtual mirrors to stores - hadn’t worked, and dropped it.
In 2016, with tech-enabled customer experiences developing at an unprecedented pace, smart retailers are beginning to realise it’s the most strategically sensible way to approach innovation.
A lean methodology is the key to speedy innovation
The ‘lean startup’ was originally a way for new companies to get their products off the ground using minimal investment, using short development cycles, swift iterations and learning through experimenting. It represented a shift towards a focus on provable market need and product benefit over establishing market share or profitability.
The key difference between lean startup and developing a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) using traditional agile methods is:
Agile – you try to keep your development ready for release from an early stage, and target an MVP for release that you believe customers will want and will deliver results for the business (increased sales, more users etc).
Lean – you do the minimum amount of work possible to prove an assumption you have (via an experiment) and then you iterate based on the results of that experiment.
Example – a business wants to build an app which helps people get taxis more quickly
With agile, this means the development team will release an app as soon as they have built one that helps people get taxis more quickly.
With lean, this problem is tackled in a different way:
- The business believes people want to get taxis more quickly (an assumption)
- The development team will first prove this is true, probably by building a sign-up website saying ‘sign up here for quicker taxis in the future and we’ll keep you updated’
- If enough people sign up, the business can move to proving its next assumption - that people will want to download an app to get quicker taxis. To test this, the team will build an app that lets users see nearby taxis.
- If enough people download it, the next assumption to prove is that they’ll want to use the app to hail those taxis - and so on, until the app has been shown to meet the needs of the users and the goals of the business
At any stage throughout this process a key assumption could be proved incorrect or inaccurate. This allows the business to quickly re-evaluate its requirements and test different assumptions, moving in a new direction with minimal waste and effort.
The same principles can be applied to innovation projects in established businesses:
- While innovation should always focus on goals that enhance customer experience and contribute to increased sales or operational efficiency, it’s just as important to track and prove whether your assumptions are correct as it is to deliver new functionality.
- If the new offering doesn’t help prove your assumptions, the business should have the courage to move on or try a different idea – as John Lewis did with its ‘magic mirrors’. This isn’t wasted money or effort – your business (and teams) has learned what doesn’t work in the most efficient way possible, rather than making a more costly assumption later down the line.
- The technology and wealth of data available to today’s retailers combined with innovation platforms designed to connect them together allow for high-speed development over costly large-scale rollouts. It’s now possible to put together a streamlined version of a product or process innovation in a matter of weeks, where more traditional methods might take months.
- This enables retailers to build, measure and learn what works and what doesn’t in a ‘real world’ environment. They can then tweak any features which don’t contribute to either customer experience or business results, or get rid of them altogether and use what they learned to try something that might work better.
Low cost, low risk, high impact
‘Lean’ doesn’t only apply to the development process – this way of working cuts a lot of the fat from costs and resources. It also keeps strategic risk to a minimum; it shouldn’t affect business as usual if it’s done properly, and there’s always a way out of experiments that don’t work before they become an expensive mistake. As an example, electronics giant GE created its Fastworks programme to introduce a lean startup approach to the company, and as a result reduced overall development costs by 60-80% across the board.
Lean and agile?
Of course, the leaner you become, the more agile you become. These methods for development and innovation go hand in hand – synchronising lean iterations with agile development cycles speeds up MVP development and allows for quicker testing, learning and adjusting. The key difference is that lean development takes a scientific approach – all results are valid, whether the innovation fails or succeeds. It’s all part of the learning process and one more step on the path to delivering something which really works for both customer and business.
Dan Hartveld has a global reputation for excellence in the field of mobile retail. He has developed award-winning, first-in-class commercial solutions for leading retailers including Topshop, Burberry and MasterCard. Known for his expertise in the practical application of innovative technology to achieve measurable results for retail, Dan is a...