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Problem Solving: Quantity vs. Quality

Jim Mahoney
January 31, 2022

A professor at the University of Florida, according to author James Clear, divided his film photography class into two groups. One group would be graded on the quantity or amount of work they produced. The professor would simply add up photographs submitted to him with students turning in 100 receiving an A, 90 photos earning a B, etc. The other group would be graded on the quality or excellence of their work. They could submit if they wanted as little as one image but it would need to be nearly perfect. Which group in this limited experiment produced the best photos? The quantity or quality group?

 In this case, the group focusing on quantity produced the best photos. Leaders are often faced with similar dilemmas in which they need a solution that will work to solve a problem. Is it better to focus on finding one solution that would work or perhaps multiple ones that might have the parts necessary for the best solution? Here are three ideas to consider when faced with quality and quantity arguments:

 (1) If you want a good idea, have lots of ideas.

 The photography students in the quantity group took lots of pictures, experimented with lighting, tried different compositions, and improved their skills. They were indeed learning, creating their own feedback loops, and ultimately producing great work. Generating ideas and trying new approaches is often at the heart of real innovation. In hunting for a solution, we sometimes through the sheer generation of ideas, find solutions to other problems. Remember the 3 M post its found ubiquitously in every office. They were developed as a failed result of finding new stronger sticking adhesives. However, they were the perfect light adhesive to saving book pages!

(2) Ready, aim, aim, aim……

How many times have you seen inaction because people were afraid of making a mistake or worse yet, not acting until they had the perfect solution. The classic paralysis by analysis can happen here. Remember the classic team building experimental problem where various groups were asked to solve a problem using only marshmallows, uncooked spaghetti, tape, string and asked to build a tower. It turns out kindergarteners out preformed adults because they just launched into doing. They weren’t afraid of inaction. They were doing until they had their best solution. Author Clear advises it’s the same thing with mastering new habits. Start with repetition, not perfection. In this case get your ideas in and do.

(3) Good is the enemy of the great

Jim Collins popularized this saying often attributed first to Voltaire when he echoed, “ the best is the enemy of the good”. Sometimes good enough is indeed good enough. Sometimes seeking perfection disables action. Or as a female friend of mine once remarked about finding the right mate, “sometimes you have to kiss a bunch of frogs.”

The truth is we all want quality in products, services, and solutions. One size rarely fits all. Quantity can be important in finding solutions. And not.

A presidential historian proclaimed a former president was often quite decisive because he could as the historian claimed “ feel “ the right decision and make it. The historian contrasted that approach with another former president who could wear you out arguing both sides of any important issue equally well. The historian’s colleague acknowledged how exhausting the former president could be but then added his comparative note, “But at least he knew there was another side. “

Quantity and quality play well together. The good leader knows they both exist, how to use them, and when to use them to get timely, effective results to problems.