• 11.07.12

How To Avoid The Innovation One-Hit Wonder

Be a Beethoven, not a Falco: Learn how to innovate continuously.

How To Avoid The Innovation One-Hit Wonder

What do Falco’s Rock Me Amadeus, Dee Lite’s Groove Is in the Heart, and Soft Cell’s Tainted Love have in common? Each is a distinguished inductee into the proverbial One Hit Wonder Hall of Fame.


The breakout hit knows no industry boundaries: from books (Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind) to fashion (pajama jeans) to one of the most popular puzzles of all time, the Rubik’s Cube, one hit wonders are fascinating artifacts of the human experience. If nothing else, they make us smile. Imagine: Where would the average American wedding be without at least one debaucherous keg-fueled extended family rendition of Los Del Rio’s The Macarena?

While we have no explanation for the unusual success of the one-hit wonder, we do know how to create the conditions for humans to be continuously creative. But what sets serial innovators apart from one hit wonders?

For one, serial innovators just keep going. They are always in the market for new problems to solve and emerging opportunities to exploit. For example, although Jack Dorsey and friends stumbled upon Twitter (originally designed as an internal tool for Odeo employees), they didn’t necessarily stop at their accidental sleeper hit once they tweeted about it. They continued to create, to produce, and to reinvent other categories as well. But is it just about perseverance? Or are innovators like Dorsey somehow unique? Do they have some superhuman creative capability or is serial innovation something all humans have the capacity to generate? I believe by creating the right conditions, the latter is entirely possible. Here’s one thing you can do to increase your odds of success with innovation.

First, it’s important to understand the psychology behind the success of serial innovators. To illustrate, consider the life and work of composer Ludwig van Beethoven. Not only was Beethoven creative, he, like Pablo Picasso, was famously prolific. And so, what allowed Beethoven to avoid One Hit Wonderland? The simple answer is: He had a great boss. The relationship between the famed composer and a relatively unknown prince holds a secret for what inspires and increases the capacity of human creativity.

Czech Prince Joseph Franz Maximillian Lobkowicz (1772-1816) was a great patron of Beethoven. Under the Prince’s patronage, Beethoven created his greatest works including the 3rd (Eroica), the 5th, and the 6th (Pastoral) symphonies and, his magnum opus, the 9th symphony. The question is: Why was Beethoven so prolific in his relationship with the Prince? The answer speaks directly to a key factor in driving creative productivity: aligning intrinsic motivation with creative inspiration.

Unlike traditional patron-composer relationships at the time–where pieces were “commissioned” for specific purposes and directed by the patron–the Prince broke from tradition by offering to pay Beethoven an annual stipend with “no strings attached.” Under this relationship, Beethoven was allowed to compose what he wanted, when he wanted, rather than being told he needed to create a piano sonata for the King’s niece or a choral piece for a nobleman, or a symphony to celebrate the egos of the court. The Prince provided no pre-defined purpose, venue, or event for the products of Beethoven’s quill. Rather he simply funded his efforts. He trusted his genius and allowed him to do what he loved most: compose. This stipend (not unlike a MacArthur Genius grant today) allowed Beethoven the freedom to create without the distraction of commissions and the need to teach in order to pay his bills. As a result, Beethoven produced more “hits” and he produced them at breakneck speed.

Beethoven’s experience is not unique. His success speaks directly to what we have learned in research about the success of innovation, namely, the more you can align a person’s personal motivation with the freedom to explore, discover, and create, the greater the creative output. As many artists will tell you, the greatest art they create for themselves.


Think about your own experiences of creativity. Likely your greatest creative acts were produced at a time when you felt most in tune with what inspires you most. Creativity scholar Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it “flow.” Flow theory exists in organizations as well. Those organizations that understand this fundamental human phenomenon–the need to create in step with a person’s intrinsic motives and desire–stand a much greater chance of success with innovation than do those whom demand their employees innovate without aligning their interests with the objective at hand. That said: The great challenge to organizations seeking to innovate is not a question of getting employees to “think outside the box”; it’s a question of allowing them to think at all. Time matters.

Continuous innovation requires more than perseverance. It requires synching personal interest with curiosity, time, and freedom from a defined outcome. As an innovation leader, your job is to create the environment, incentives, and channels of distribution for the products of your employees’ creativity to be heard, funded, and commercialized. In turn, it’s their job to create.

While we do not have the luxury afforded to Beethoven to think and tinker; we do have time. And in that time, be careful not to stifle what may likely emerge on its own. Be mindful of the balance between “creative autonomy” and “business focus.” You never know where an idea may come from, for what reason, or in what form. Rather than attempt to guess, have faith in the innovative environment you have created and the people you have entrusted to help you figure it out. And then, once you’ve created the conditions for innovation to take root, your job is simple: stay out of the way and do The Macarena.

What do you think separates serial innovators from one-hit wonders? Tell us in the comments section below.

Andrew Razeghi is a Lecturer at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, where he teaches innovation. Follow him on Twitter @andrewrazeghi or on his blog at

[Image: Flickr user Erika]