Why do many Headless/eCommerce strategic initiatives fail - 8 key reasons

In todays rapidly evolving technical landscape x3 new architectural strategies have emerged - but why do so many of them fail


David Worby

6/5/20234 min read

In today's rapidly evolving technological landscape, many innovative eCommerce projects have emerged in pursuit of gaining competitive advantage. For many – traditional monolith approach has had its day, and replacing it are a series of new strategic approaches:

  • Headless - this is where the backend of the website is decoupled from the front-end or interface layer. This allows the same content to be repurposed for multiple channels with minimal manual input and a more channel specific solution to be deployed. Technically, the term can cover all three variants listed here!

  • Composable - where a core eCommerce engine, in addition to being headless, can be seamlessly linked to other best-of-breed specialist products like a PIM, DAM or search & merch tool using APIs to link the elements together seamlessly. This increases the capabilities that the stack can deliver over a monolithic system from a single supplier.

  • Microservices – where, in addition to being headless, every individual endpoint of the dataflow can be defined which allows for complete customisation when connecting the components of the tech stack. This allows for precise calibration of the flows to support specific use cases more accurately.

Our research shows that whilst there are many examples of happy early-adopters who’ve made the switch away from traditional monolith architecture, there are many others that have faced significant challenges in implementing either Headless/Composable or Microservice (HCM) architecture

Emerging evidence from the last 12 months suggests up to half of these projects are in trouble, being either paused or even stopped, which given the significant commitment both financially and otherwise is worrying.

In this piece, we’ll explore the eight key reasons why this trend has accelerated recently:

1) IT dominance.

In an organisation that identifies technology as a differentiator, this normally wouldn’t be a big issue. But if you are a retailer or a brand, your DNA is more likely to be centred around product/supply chain and marketing. In this world technology is often merely an enabler – which for a complex HCM project can create tensions and strains on the organisation. The ‘whole’ organisation needs to be aware and supportive of the change and understand the implications of the approach taken.

2) The tendency to overcomplicate.

This may appear to be inevitable but, when combined with communications challenges between the parties (say IT and business), can lead to horrendous outcomes. It’s also critically important to ensure vested interests are de-prioritised so that your systems integrators/partners do not have any encouragement in making your solution more complicated.

3) A lack of joined-up or holistic thinking

HCM projects often are composed of independent components or modules, each developed separately. While this modular approach offers flexibility, it may also lead to difficulties in integration, resulting in compatibility issues and operational inefficiencies. Without proper coordination and collaboration, the components fail to work together harmoniously, hindering the project's overall success. You need a clear overall understanding across the leadership team for what you are doing or these projects can eat up considerable time and capabilities.

4) Poor collaboration and transparency.

HCM initiatives often involve diverse teams, each responsible for different components or services. Effective communication across the teams must be established to facilitate the exchange of ideas, progress updates, and issue resolution. Particularly in an agile environment, without clear and open lines of communication, misunderstandings will occur, impeding the project's progress and leading to delays or even failure.

5) Resources.

It’s inevitable that in the early stages the demand for both internal & external resources and the consequential costs will create challenges for many businesses. External agencies can assist with experienced support – but the costs can be substantial. For enterprises, retaining knowledge and understanding within the organisation is key, so third parties can only realistically provide temporary support. You will need expertise in front end technology like React.js, agile working experience and capable technical architects who can define and assemble what you need. If you are a smaller player securing the right skills and retaining them can be a very costly exercise.

6) Complexity.

Arguably the decision to embark on a HCM project should be seen as a long-term objective in which business and technology teams play equally weighted parts. However, in reality the work tends to focus more on the Technology teams (for whom it becomes the day job) with business getting involved where needed. Most technology teams are comfortable with complexity, but junior business teams rarely are; this creates new challenges when trying to share information between ‘full-time’ employees and very ‘part time’ equivalents.

7) Centralised governance structure.

In the absence of strong leadership, coordination can become a significant hurdle. HCM projects need a shared vision combined with a collegiate working style or they will lose direction; it becomes tempting for each team focusing solely on their specific component without considering the bigger picture. A governance framework is essential to align the various teams, ensure coherence, and establish a unified vision.

8) Business value.

Finally, but arguably the most important reason is that defining and working towards business outcomes is rarely as obvious as it might appear. Whilst the business functions may want to achieve certain targets, these often get side-lined in the pursuit of ‘technology purity’, this has undermined several major projects and can lead to ownership uncertainty.

In summary, HCM eCommerce projects are here to stay. They offer immense potential for innovation and adaptability. However, they also face substantial challenges: Seamless integration; effective communication; strong governance; and resource planning are all critical components to overcome these challenges. By fostering collaboration, embracing open dialogue & collegiate working, and establishing a robust framework, they can be successful – so don’t forget the basics.

If you are thinking about transitioning to a HCM future, or are experiencing any of the symptoms above, drop us a line – we’d love to chat.


Prospero Commerce is a UK-based independent consulting firm. With over 60 years of combined eCommerce experience, we help ambitious companies make smarter digital decisions.

To explore what’s possible in digital commerce—get in touch.

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Also this series:

The Digital Impact on Traditional newspapers - a 3 minute read

Becoming a Digital leader - 5 tips for Managing Organisational Change - a 2 minute read

Why do so many HCM* initiatives fail

8 key reasons

*Headless/Composable/Micro services