paul le

Quality or Quantity?

An old adage that 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. The implication is that 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.

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. The trade-off that we believe we are making is that ultimately, our work will on average be of higher quality, and it does not matter that there is less of it.

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. 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. However, to get there, one has to “pay their dues”, so to speak, and go through the drudgery of putting in the repetitions, 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.