I was trying to get more push ups in at the gym the other day. In isolation, that’s not a bad idea. However, there was plenty of room for me to do fewer, much better.
I realized soon enough that this behavior was due to an incentive I had in place. I used to give myself a small check mark at the end of the week if I counted 100 push ups as a proxy for time spent at the gym. However, it wasn’t relevant anymore. So, I took the check mark row off. But it got me thinking about incentives.
First, whenever you see a person or an organization pushing for more/faster instead of better, take a good look at the incentives. People compensated for the short term will push for short term wins instead of longer term value. And, this compensation need not be in terms of pay. It could also just be about more praise in the short term or “culture currency.”
Second, we overestimate the amount of time “more” is useful. This is likely because our emotional system, the amygdala, was trained in thousands of years of scarcity. The last hundred years have created more abundance than our amygdala can ever imagine. So, yes, every once a while, we do need more in our lives.
But, as a general rule, better is always better.
Two artists, Ted Orland and David Waylon, relate the story of a ceramics teacher who found herself teaching a class on two separate days, neatly divided in half. She decided to try an A/B experiment. To the first half of the class she said what she’d been saying for years – “You’ll be graded based on the quality of your work. At the end of the semester, turn in the single best piece of pottery you created.” To the other half of the class, she said something very different. She explained to them that they would be graded purely on quantity – “Crank out as many pots as you can this semester.”
At the end of the term, she noticed that the best pots – both technically and artistically – didn’t come from the quality group, they came from the quantity group. By making pot after pot after pot, they were learning, and adapting. They didn’t set out to make the best pots, yet they did. Meanwhile, the other half spent the semester aiming for perfection and falling short.
We succeed by trying and failing, not by striving for perfection. Perhaps persistence isn’t so much sticking with something as it is persistently improving.
“What you need to know about the next piece is contained in the last piece. – David Bayles & Ted Orland
Source and thanks to: Ken Norton’s essay – 10x, not 10%, Art & Fear by David Bayles, Ted Orland
This is a simple truth that is particularly hard to internalize. But, the fact remains that –
– bad food is worse than none
– a bad hire is far worse than no hire at all.
– or, for the most easily understood example, a bad relationship is far far worse than none at all.
Yes, you can scale your team really quickly by bringing bodies on board. But, bring in the wrong people and you’ll kill the motivation of all those who made your team successful, destroy the culture you worked so hard to build and spend all your time dealing with the kind of crap that comes with bad hires. Your team would much rather shoulder more effort than deal with the wrong person. So would you.
As humans, we’re wired towards feeling good about choosing quantity over quality. It is hard wired into our brains after centuries spent foraging for food in tough conditions all by ourselves. But, in our age of endless choice, it is vital we learn this lesson.
Great things are easily destroyed by a few bad choices made in a hurry. So, choose wisely, and remember – bad is far worse than none.