One hit wonders

How to sustain success

Fred Mael

What do Benny Mardones, Crash Test Dummies, Martika, Ides of March, Bob Lind, and Buffalo Springfield all have in common? All are singers or groups known as “one hit wonders.” Each had a single hit song that was never followed by a second one. Despite (in some cases) much media attention and star-quality producers, these performers fell quickly into obscurity. Why this happened can tell you a good deal about the perils of business and the importance of organizational reinvention.

Why it Happens

There are various reasons why some performers were one-hit wonders. For some, the original hit was not really theirs – someone wrote a song for them that fit their performance capabilities but was beyond their creative skill set. Unable to generate or purchase anything comparable, they quickly fell from popularity. Others who did write their own material found that they had limited creativity and could only produce something very similar to their hit song. Still other one-hit wonders who composed their own material and could have expanded their repertoire were actually handcuffed by their initial breakthrough. Trapped by expectations of devotees, they stuck to offering variations of their initial success to avoid alienating their core loyal fans – to disastrous effect.

This brings us to reinvention and how you as a CEO or organization head might be tempted to subvert the need to reinvent. Your lagging sales tell you that you can’t continue to provide the same product, target the same audience, use the same marketing or public relations methods, or continue the same distribution methods. What’s holding you back from making changes and taking new a new direction?

You may be drawing a blank. You do what you do well, it’s paid off for quite a while, and you hadn’t really thought about doing anything differently until the reality of your situation blindsided you. Where do you begin?

Don’t Imitate, Reinvent

You need to find some way to brainstorm, with or without outside help. These are some of the questions you should be asking yourself: Do I have a clear picture of what it is that I am now selling that is no longer popular or viable? What are the core values and skills (as opposed to the tangibles and specifics) in my repertoire that I can reapply to a variation or expansion of what I do? In which direction might I expand, be more responsive to demand, or even get ahead of the curve, based on trends and possibilities? Reinvention brainstorming requires not only collecting information and data about the present, but also intellectual curiosity about the future.

Keep in mind that imitation is not reinvention. You can certainly match your competitors by getting into whatever they have embraced, but if your heart isn’t in it, you won’t really invest yourself in the changes. Reinvention is generally a logical “next step” or “next leap” that makes you relevant to your market without making you irrelevant to your business. If you jump into something that negates your identity, you may make a quick splash that is unsustainable. Returning to the music metaphor, this is like the teenage pop stars that fade and then reemerge, amid great fanfare, as adult temptresses. They make a quick second act splash and then generally disappear once again, because they both lose their old fans and aren’t compelling to desired new ones.

In contrast to the one-hit wonders and others who lacked staying power, groups like U2 and the Beatles managed to grow, expand, push out borders, even risk shocking some longtime fans – yet maintain recognizable qualities that express continuity with the essence of their talents. They and others are positive reinvention role models.

Expect Resistance

The resistance you may meet upon attempting reinvention will not be limited to your internal qualms: others around you will also resist. Your employees include those who may feel marginalized or threatened by proposed changes. Sometimes change may be perceived by earlier customers or clients as betrayal. Even when a CEO honestly comes around to a new viewpoint or new priorities, it may be labeled as pure expediency or greed. It is important after deciding on a direction of reinvention to convey how the changes are the natural extension of everything that the organization did until now, accompanied by the recognition that to continue on as before is to atrophy.

This perspective will be useful to you not only in your work organization but also in your nonprofit work. Religious institutions and charities have pockets of members that oppose any changes, be they to the left or right. Should you be convinced that reinvention in needed, you must make the case that the changes will actually preserve the soul of the organization.

You are heavily invested in the business or organization that you have brought to success. Keep monitoring the environment and take stock of where you need to reinvent, and let the hits keep coming.

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. ( This article appeared in the April 2012 issues of Baltimore SmartCEO and Washington SmartCEO magazine.