Quality or Quantity?

An old adage that many people often hear is “quality over quantity”. Given a scenario where one must choose between something of high quality, or something of high quantity, one should choose high quality. In many cases, this is true. But does this apply everywhere in life?

In the book, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles, he tells of a parable:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot, albeit a “perfect” one, to get an “A”.

Can you guess which group did the best? Can you see which group you would best identify with?

Chances are, it is the group on the right: those being judged on the quality of their single pot. Surely, the group on the left — those being judged for quantity — will not have as high a standard as the group on the right, and simply just produce mediocre work.

Death to Stock

In our lives, we tend to act like the group on the right. We always aim to produce things that are of high quality, that are perfect — often on the first try.

But in doing so, we also end up stuck in a perfection trap, in analysis paralysis. We spend too much time planning and waiting for perfect conditions, as opposed to actually doing whatever it is that we set out to do. In many cases, perfect is the enemy of good, and we never get around to any doing.

That is fine though, because in the end when we do complete what we set out to do, our work will always be of higher quality than if we had just done it without all that careful planning. Right?

Unfortunately, this is not always the case. A distinction should be made between the final product, and the rough drafts. The final product is what we present to the world, while the rough drafts are what we make when we are creating the final products.

In The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman, he talks about a concept called Human-centered design (HCD). He goes on to say:

The HCD principle is to avoid specifying the problem as long as possible but instead to iterate upon repeated approximations. This is done through rapid tests of ideas, and after each test modifying the approach and the problem definition.

Design, and indeed many ventures in our lives are best done in an iterative process, where, although each step in the iteration process may not be perfect or of high quality, the sheer number of steps taken, whereby the work is incrementally improved upon, results in work of high quality.

To be sure, one should always strive for quality and perfection, but understand that to get there, one has to pay their dues so to speak, and go through the drudgery of repetition after repetition, improving one’s work in tiny increments before perfection or high quality can be achieved. The caveat here is that mistakes must be learned from.

By now you probably have guessed how the parable ends:

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work”and learning from their mistakes”the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

The lesson to be learned here is that quality rarely ever arises out of nothing. To achieve perfection and quality, one must first have to go through an iterative process of constantly testing and refining one’s work.

Practice makes perfect, and quantity leads to quality.

Also published on Medium