Be it around standards and expectations, vision statements, training, values, or performance conversations, change efforts often fail due to falling into the trap of “one-and-done.” The initiative is used to solve for some kind of problem, but it used only once and never again revisited.

Although there are numerous side effects of getting caught in the trap of “one-and-done,” the most significant is that there are zero long-term results. The effort fails to create any sustainable change and becomes another casualty in the “flavor-of-the-month” bin. Therefore, we must avoid the “one-and-done” trap and learn to leverage these initiatives for sustainable change.

The Trap of “One-and-Done”

“One-and-done” initiatives are often best business practices that become misused. Because these practices are popular and well-known, organizations that are looking for a quick and easy fix for a problem jump at them. The problem is that we aren’t taught how to effectively use them.

Think of the following scenarios:

  • People attend training and come back inspired. They might even try out some new behaviors. Within a short time, the training is forgotten and behavior defaults to where it was before. Not seeing results and/or behaviors modeled by or supported by leadership, they resist the next time they are mandated to attend training.
  • A manager has a performance conversation and gives feedback to the direct report. No follow-up conversation happens, and over time both parties forget what was discussed. The direct report reverts to the initial behavior and thinks it must have not really been that important in the first place.
  • Leadership drafts standards and expectations that are given to all new employees. However, after initially reading them, the employee puts them in a drawer and they are never discussed again. Over time, they are forgotten. No one even references them when they are broken.

Like any tool, if we don’t know how to use it we won’t get good results. In the case of these initiatives there is a widespread belief that, just by using the tool, the problem will go away. However, just like with tools, these practices take time to learn to use properly. And, they must be used properly in order to get the desired result.

Ironically, “one-and-done” strategies can create more harm than good in the long run. Consider some of the side effects when these approaches are implemented and fail to create any visible, long-term result:

  • Wasted time
  • Wasted money
  • Cynicism
  • Lack of trust in leadership’s direction
  • Skepticism around future efforts
  • Lower morale
  • Confusion
  • Poor performance

Fortunately, by learning to properly use these tools, we can escape the trap of “one-and-done” and create sustained changes.

The Power of Repetition

Simply enough, the antidote to “one-and-done” can be achieved by inverting the words to “many-and-ongoing.” Put another way, by frequently revisiting, practicing, and integrating behavior, the initiative gets results. Returning to the above scenarios, “many-and-ongoing” could look like:

  • People, including managers, attend training together. Afterward, managers sit down with their direct reports and discuss key takeaways. They then help their direct reports set goals to integrate what they learned and have regular, ongoing check-ins to track progress and course-correct as needed. Even better, leadership creates communities of practice to reinforce learning and practicing together.
  • After giving feedback to their direct report, a manager identifies what behaviors need to change and works with their direct report to create a development plan. They then set up recurring meetings in which the manager continues to acknowledge success, provide constructive feedback, coach, and offer support.
  • On a regular basis, leaders meet either with individuals or teams to review standards and expectations. They have a discussion around how they are being upheld (or not) and look for ways to bridge any gaps in behavior. Leaders and employees also self-assess their behavior, and explore opportunities to exceed standards and expectations or even raise the bar by setting new ones.

The key in each example is having recurring touchpoints while, in between, having planned strategies for practice, growth, and integration. When used successfully, these practices eventually become part of the “new normal” for employees and embedded in the organization’s culture.

Creating Sustainable Change

This approach applies to any change initiative. For best results, formulate an ongoing integration plan before rolling something out. Identify roles and responsibilities for implementation, create a timeline (ideally for at least a year out), and hold each other accountable by following up regularly.

You may encounter resistance at first if you’ve habitually fallen in the trap of “one-and-done” in the past. However, by sticking to the plan, reaffirming your commitment, and following it all the way through, the resistance will eventually fade. By this time, the change will have taken hold, and people will know that you’re for real the next time around.

To assist you in creating these changes, reflect on the following questions:


  • What was the result of “one-and-done” approaches that you’ve tried in the past?
  • Using some of the above ideas, what would a sustainable plan look like around a current or recent initiative?
  • How long do you think it would take for a permanent change to take hold? What might keep you from sticking to that timeframe, and what would it take to ensure follow-through?
  • How might you counter cynicism and/or inspire engagement around a proposed initiative?
  • What problem are you trying to solve for, and is there a better approach to solve for it other than a standard initiative?