Effective adaptation means learning from mistakes and resisting the urge to go back to square one.

When people first fail at a task, they tend to lower their expectations and claim that at least they learned something from their mistakes. The crucial question, though, is what past failures teach us: Do we learn how to fail, or do we learn how to improve so that we don’t fail again?

Adaptability is, in large part, the art of learning from mistakes – ideally, the mistakes of others! Take the British automobile industry. In the 1950s, virtually every carmaker was set on developing ever more powerful – and fuel-guzzling – vehicles. They were so fixated on this goal that they overlooked a massive segment of the market: young, urban, and environmentally-minded people. 

The advantage thus passed to German competitors who were churning out popular, compact microcars like the Messerschmitt KR200. As a result, British brands were being crowded out altogether. Did that make them change their approach? Hardly. There was, however, one notable exception: a small team of auto engineers at the British Motor Company headed by designer Sir Alec Issigonis. 

Observing their peers’ stubborn refusal to change with the times, the team decided to spearhead the production of a new style of car – the iconic Mini marketed by Morris Mini-Minor. Learning from the mistakes of others and adapting to new consumer preferences quickly led to success. Over the following decades, the British Motor Company went on to sell over five million Minis.

That said, you can take learning from mistakes too far, as PepsiCo found out in 2009 when it developed a new brand image for Tropicana orange juice. When the company’s massive marketing campaign backfired and sales plummeted by 20 percent, PepsiCo panicked.

Realizing that the branding made the product look anonymous and cheap rather than promoting awareness of its quality, they scrambled back to square one. Instead of making a few minor tweaks and fixing the mistake, they reverted to the old branding. The outcome? They blew $33 million to change absolutely nothing!