In an ideal scenario, major leadership transitions can be functional processes that strengthen organizations and push their missions forward. At their worst, they can destroy agencies.

Many of the leaders and others who were consulted for this project, all of whom had experienced leadership transitions, spoke extensively about the need to plant the seeds for smooth transitions long before any transition is on the horizon so that those seeds can become part of the cultural fiber of an organization.

So, what is “organizational culture”? The term has been described as the observable patterns of behavior in an organization and the underlying beliefs, assumptions, values and ways of interacting that contribute to its unique social and psychological environment. Regardless of the intentionality all organizations have a culture.

Organizational culture is often consciously or unconsciously dictated by a charismatic leader or leaders. This is especially true in new harm reduction organizations that often begin as the brainchild(ren) of one or a small group of community leaders driven by a passion to do something about the suffering they see around them.

These leaders are often incredibly passionate advocates for their communities but may lack support and time, are often underpaid and are frequently the sole holders of institutional knowledge in the organization. These leaders are often very good at taking the initiative and “DIYing” it – doing everything themselves – but may lack the time, inclination, or skills for delegating responsibilities, cross training or sharing knowledge efficiently and effectively.

Although it’s understandable how organizations find themselves in this situation, it is a recipe for poor transitions. Indeed, time and again, harm reduction agencies with these cultural features have struggled when their leaders quit, retired or were suddenly unavailable.

When this happens, it is program participants who lose when services they have come to rely on are suddenly disrupted or unavailable.

Make conscious choices around
culture and organizational design

Organizational culture and design can sound boring, abstract or superfluous but strategic leaders invested in organizational longevity need to think about them from the outset. There are many tools available for assessing your agency’s natural organizational style or when (and how) it should be adjusted.

Organizations tend to exist on a spectrum from:

Flat/Non-Hierarchical Pyramid/Rigidly Hierarchical
Collaborative/Relational Individualistic

Harm reduction organizations tend to fall on the more collaborative end of the organizational spectrum with an emphasis on a mission or values as motivation.

It is essential for organizations to decide exactly where they want to fall on these spectrums and to talk about organizational culture openly and honestly. This transparency can set the stage for new leaders to emerge and for information and power to be more effectively shared.

To be clear, the process of deciding on organizational culture is too complex to be entirely explained here. Please see the Tools section for more information

For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. 

James Baldwin
This project was developed by:

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