Every one of us has worked on a team, be it a sports team, school project, musical ensemble, at your job, or otherwise. I’ve been lucky enough to be on some of the best teams in the country. As an engineering student at UVa and a member of the GMU Indoor Drumline (a world semi-finalist), I’ve worked with very smart and very talented people. Oddly though, I’ve walked away from many of these teams feeling like we underperformed. Despite the fact that I’ve been surrounded by a huge amount of potential, I’ve rarely finished a project or a competitive season totally satisfied. And given the number of people who hate group projects in class, I know I’m not alone on this.

I think I have a solution though. Not a silver bullet, but one that has lately been a strong motivator for me. It starts, of all places, in an introductory study of algorithms (I’ll keep it quick and painless, I promise).

Upper bounds

One of the first things computer science students learn about algorithms is what we refer to as “time complexity” - this describes how the running time of a particular algorithm changes as the input size increases. Typically, we’re most concerned with the upper bound on said running time. Upper bounds are probably best described with an example.

Let’s say we have three gentlemen Adam, Bob, and Chris standing next to each other. If Bob is taller than Adam, we can say that Adam’s height is upper bounded by Bob’s height. If Chris is taller than Bob, we know he’s also taller than Adam, so Adam’s height is also upper bounded by Chris’s height.

We’ve heard the “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link” analogy far too many times. True as it may be, it really isn’t a useful way to get people’s attention. It’s easy after hearing this phrase to find someone on your team who isn’t performing as well as you, even for just a moment, and say to yourself, “Aha, they’re the weakest link. It’s their job to work harder. I can coast.” This seems to be especially true of people who are aware that they, in the big picture, are very good at what they do (like students at selective universities or excellent musicians). I’m still guilty of this at least occasionally.

Here’s the problem with this mentality: weak links improve. Many of them are aware that they need to work a little harder, and often they do, at which point someone else becomes the weakest link. Quite possibly someone who’s given themselves permission to coast.

This is where the upper bound concept comes into play. Let’s consider the weakest member of a team (by some arbitrary metric); we’ll call them W. If W places an upper bound on the overall performance of their team, then so does every other member who outperforms W. Regardless of whether you happen to be W or not…

You, individually, personally, place an upper bound on how good your team can be.

This mentality holds everyone more accountable. It’s impossible to put all the responsibility for improving the team on other people. If you want the team to excel, you have to excel. Think about it this way: if the whole team worked only as hard as you, would you be satisfied? (In many cases, I would not have been.)

Food for thought before the new year begins. Push yourself, and go make your team better than you thought it could be.