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What flat organizations can learn from the Head of the Charles

Head of the Charles Regatta

Last weekend thousands of athletes, spectators and volunteers lined the banks of the Charles River in Boston for the 51st Head of the Charles Regatta. It is the largest two-day regatta in the world and draws competitors from colleges, high schools, and clubs from nearly every state in the U.S. and from 28 countries throughout the world. "Regattas such as the Head of the Charles in Boston and the Head of the Schuylkill in Philadelphia are to the rowing world what the New York Marathon and the Boston Marathon are to running," said Susan Saint Sing in The Eight: A Season in the Tradition of Harvard Crew.

To the average spectator at the Head of the Charles, rowing is a graceful, elegant sport, and a fun fall Boston event. But just like any sport where the elite in the field are competing, rowing in the Head of the Charles takes thousands of hours of hard work, dedication, and commitment. And the interpersonal dynamics within a successful, competitive rowing team present some intriguing lessons for those managing companies with today’s preferred "flat" organizational structure--one with few hierarchical levels and looser boundaries. 

Each and every rowing team in an eight (the long rowing shell with eight rowers and a coxswain) is faced with two "management" challenges: getting each individual rower to perform to the maximum of his or her ability while also working together as a team and navigating the complexities of what is essentially a flat organization. The first management challenge--that of coaxing the best performances out of individuals while balancing the overall performance of the team--has been covered in a well-known case study on the Army crew team, published by the Harvard Business Review. The latter issue--managing a team in a flat organization--is quite intriguing.

Every rowing team has a head coach and possibly an assistant coach or two. They are the "CEOs" of the team. Then there’s the coxswain. The coxswain usually sits in the stern of the boat, and his or her primary role is steering and navigation. But they also coach the boat through drills, and act almost as a junior coach. Then you have the eight rowers. While rowers will often say there is a hierarchy to where one is assigned to sit in the boat, it is most related to physical skills and traits. In the context of rowing, each rower is an individual contributor, but also has to demonstrate leadership skills to further the performance of the team. 

"When we look at organizations that are flatter, there's both top-down and bottom-up decision making," said Deborah Ancona, Professor of Organization Studies at MIT Sloan School of Management, in Fast Company. "That means there has to be a lot more transparency around how decisions are made, hence a lot more tasks are given to people lower down in the organization. There’s more empowerment and freedom given to people." 

"A rowing crew is as flat a management structure there is," said Jeff Nelson, rower and Business Engagement Manager for Community Rowing, located here in the Boston area. "You have eight people working together as one, with no hierarchy and ultimate transparency." In fact, there are so many parallels between rowing skills and team work that Community Rowing offers corporate team-building and executive training programs where the concepts of working as a team and managing flat organizations are presented within the context of learning to row.

What does that mean to the rower? It means taking responsibility for his or her own performance and for that of the team. The "blame game" can't exist. “When there are technically no titles and no bosses, everyone needs to step up and be the leader," said Ancona. 

Deborah Ancona is a Professor of Organization Studies at MIT Sloan and Faculty Director of the MIT Leadership Center. She teaches in the Executive Education programs, Transforming Your Leadership Strategy, Neuroscience for Leadership, and the Executive Program in General Management. She is the author of X-teams: How to Build Teams That Lead, Innovate and Succeed.

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