One Hit Wonders: How Turnaround Success Can Invite Failure

By Arthur Davidson, Training/Process Manager WTMC, An Onpoint Company

Long-term success is not something to be chased, but rather something to be designed and built. Fay Moore, in her book, Bent but Not Broken, reminds us, “One minute you are on top of the world and the next minute, the world is on top of you.” All too often, turnaround teams experience the real phenomenon that success can invite failure. We have all sung the lyrics of a “one-hit wonder” of some promising group that makes it to the top of the music charts, then disappears virtually overnight. How can turnaround teams guard against this tendency to follow success with failure?

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  • Recognize that a sense of accomplishment can diminish thirst for achievement. Once you have climbed successfully to the peak of Mount Everest and have proved you can do it, what’s the incentive to do it again? To avoid this, goals should not be limited to a single event. If the goal was to be the person who climbed Mount Everest the most times, the first climb would simply be an inspirational steppingstone for the next climb. When success comes, we should celebrate the success as just a milestone on our journey to bigger and better, reward the ones who helped to make it possible and immediately set sail for the next horizon.

  • Recognize that success can produce overconfidence. It can produce a “we have arrived” mentality that assumes success is final. It can lead to a team canning the experience and becoming resistant to change. There is a danger one will become hesitant about adopting new strategies that could increase the likelihood of sustaining the success one has achieved. Overconfidence in the old ideas can lead one to see any new idea as too risky. A team can lose the will to grow. Fear of reinvention can leave us stagnating while everything around us is changing. Teams must be reminded constantly we work in a very competitive environment where the bar is always raised, success is always redefined, and our competitors are always inspecting the next revolutionary concept.

  • Recognize that you may have missed something in the recipe. We can document our successful process, but is it possible we overlooked an influencing factor outside our process? Sometimes a success is a fluke that is not necessarily repeatable. What if we just happened to catch the ideal window in the labor market? What if we just happened to catch the right negotiating climate with our contractors? What if the scales were tipped in favor of success by individuals who will not be part of the next turnaround event? In our trek to sustainable success, one place we can never afford to compromise is our “lessons learned” program.

  • Recognize that success at too high of a price is always temporary. Our zeal for success coupled with our drive to be a lean company can be a tough balancing act. How can we do more and more with less? An inspiring manager can sometime ask people for the impossible and get more than he requested, resulting in success that may not be sustainable. In the eyes of his upper management, he has just elevated his department to a new norm. With burnout and the realization that doing the impossible is to become an everyday expectation, teams can become discouraged and unwilling to repeat their efforts. As Mike McDermott pointed out, “You can shear a sheep many times, but skin him only once.” If a manager is requesting an unsustainable level of effort from his team, it must be clear at every organizational level this is a special endeavor and will be an infrequent undertaking.

A successful turnaround certainly warrants celebration, and while you’re at it, be sure to recognize those unnoticed contributing individuals who worked quietly and fervently behind the scenes. But when the confetti settles, remember this adage:

“You’re only as good as your last performance.”

With so many moving pieces, an encore performance is never guaranteed. To avoid going down in infamy as a One Hit Wonder, be diligent in your post-event assessment and devote adequate time, attention and resources as you identify, scope, plan and execute the next one. 

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