Brenda Zimmerman

Brenda Zimmerman

 On Tuesday December 16th 2014 the world became a little less brighter with the sudden passing of our dear friend,  and close colleague Brenda Zimmerman. 

Brenda was the Co-Designer and Co-director of the Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation at the University of Waterloo from 2010-2014. Professor of Strategic management at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto. She is also the founder and director of the Health Industry Management program for MBA students . Brenda Co-authored "Getting to Maybe"  with Dr. Frances Westley and Michael Quinn Patton. The writing of which made a significant contribution to the work of Social Innovation generation (SiG) and The Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR)

Brenda Zimmerman was an extraordinary, colleague, teacher, author, community member, and friend

She was a guiding presence in SiG, both at the national level in at SiG@Waterloo , where she was an associate member, mentor and guide to many of us, faculty and students alike, a key designer of the program and a key presenter in the program.

But none of those descriptions capture the singular brilliance and warmth of Brenda. She had a completely unorthodox mind. As a graduate student she got interested in complexity theory. She saw in the scientific theories of complexity and chaos insight into management and organizational dynamics. Despite the difficulty of convincing a business school in the 1980s that this was not only sound theory but sound practice, Brenda went on to train hundreds of Masters students (at McGill, Waterloo and York) in complexity thinking and practice as well as hundreds of doctors through her health care management program. Her methods were as unorthodox as her ideas. Once you had heard Brenda expound on “chunking”, on “min specs” or on “simple, complicated and complex” you thought the same way about how to manage difficult problems. Or once you had participated in a flocking experiment, or a TRIZ or a paper airplane contest in one of her classes you never again thought of education as “book learning”. It is not too much to say that Brenda single handedly forged the link between complexity thinking and management in this country. Then she brought it into the classroom in style: dressed beautifully, in fantastic shoes, laughing and expounding. She was unforgettable. Without her there are many people in Canada today who would be the poorer.

I am one of them.  I learned so much from Brenda. But behind the beautiful presentation there was a friend and mentor – someone who combined persistence and constancy with great warmth and responsiveness. She was generous with her love and her care – we all felt her genuine interest, in who we were, in what we were feeling and thinking and how we were.  To me she was a wonderful friend, who extended her care and interest not only to me but to those dear to me, my friends, my spouse, my children and grandchildren. Her insights illuminated many dark spots in my life and shed light on solutions.

Brenda’s greatest love was for her family, her two daughters, Gillian and Stephanie, her niece and nephew and her stepchildren, both the children of her recently deceased husband Bryan Heyday and her new husband Alan Ellis, her siblings and her parents. She spoke of them all with such affection that I came to know and care for them, in some cases without ever even meeting them. My deep sympathy goes out to them all in this terrible time.  Even for me the warmth of the sun seems faded today; the world is sepia with sadness. What will we do without her?

Frances Westley, Director, Waterloo Institute of Social Innovation and Resilience; SiG@Waterloo.