A shining light in a complex world

Brenda Zimmerman

When great souls die, the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly. Our eyes, briefly,
see with a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines, gnaws on kind words
promised walks never taken.
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
– Maya Angelou
A Gedenkschrift to honour Brenda Zimmerman

On December 18, 2014, Michael Quinn Patton – co-author, colleague and friend – emailed a network of people worldwide connected with complexity ideas, systems thinking, social innovation, and developmental evaluation. People were invited to contribute short reflections on Brenda’s contributions and influences. Everyone who sent something is included in this volume. You can find the tribute here.

The Brenda Zimmerman (Ellis) Scholarship

On Tuesday January 20, 2015, the Schulich School of Business at York University announced the establishment of the Brenda Zimmerman (Ellis) Scholarship. This scholarship is a tribute to Brenda’s commitment to her students and the School. It will provide funding for a full-time MBA or IMBA student. The scholarship fund is named in her honour and will recognize her passionate pursuit of excellence and innovation.

To contribute to the Scholarship Fund, please visit www.supportschulich.ca/brendazimmerman or contact the Office of Development at 416.736.2100 ext: 44659.

Remembering Brenda Zimmerman

On Tuesday, December 16, 2014 the field of social innovation in Canada lost an early and much loved leader with the untimely passing of Brenda Zimmerman. Brenda’s stellar academic career has been detailed by Dean Deszo Horvath of York University’s Schulich School of Business. For her friends at Social Innovation Generation, the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation, and the Tamarack Institute, Brenda will be remembered for her brilliance, her deep humanity, and her infectious sense of humour.

We are so sad to lose such a vital and generous member of the social innovation field, and our thoughts are with Brenda’s family, colleagues and friends at this difficult time.

Stephen Huddart
President and CEO, The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation

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

She was a guiding presence in SiG, both at the national level and 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 Hayday 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.

Tributes from the Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation Class 2014

Tributes from the Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation Class 2013

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  1. Avatar Tim Brodhead says

    As Maya Angelou (above) puts it “When great souls die…our eyes, briefly, see with a hurtful clarity…”. With Brenda, they picture a flashing brilliance, a smile to light up a room and a laugh that pulls you in to whatever is entertaining her, a colourful ensemble that says ‘Life is for living!’, a sparkling vivacity that made spending time with her intellectually enriching but also just plain fun. What a talent for teaching, for making people feel valued, for gently nudging us to be our best selves. How we will all miss her presence, even while benefiting from knowing her and remembering that wonderful smile, those welcoming hugs.

  2. Avatar Shauna Sylvester says

    My thanks to Andrew Woodall who sent me this link. I posted this to Facebook today:
    Today I learned of the passing of one of the most influential teachers in my life – Brenda Zimmerman. Brenda was one of my professors in my Masters in Management at McGill University. She introduced me to complexity theory and how it could help me understand organizational development and social change. There is no part of my professional life that she hasn’t touched. I don’t go a week without wanting to grab Edgeware or wonder how our work at SFU Carbon Talks or the SFU Public Square supports those emergent spaces where creativity and innovation thrive. She also touched my personal life. She has helped me think about how I can support my daughter in embracing ambiguity more fully, how exercise doesn’t have to be linear and how my best self can be found in my acceptance and celebration of change. What an incredible influence she has had…

  3. Avatar Komal Minhas says

    It is said that we humans experience two deaths. The first, when our soul leaves the physical body, and the second, when our name is uttered for the last time. Although Brenda has left this physical existence, her legacy, impact, and power lives on through the many thousands of lives she influenced and touched and will live on for generations.

    Hers is a heart that knew no limits. She was always right there with us. In our pain, in our joy, in our challenges, and in our triumphs. Her beauty was magnified by the power of her work and impact. I am in awe of the outpouring of love I’ve seen and felt since she left us. Her impact is far from time-bound. Rather, what she imparted in all of us will live on with an even greater fire, and passion. For she is now embedded in the work we each aim to do to better this world and the systems we live in. She set a powerful example of what scaling deep, thinking big, and driving forward can look like, and the transformative effects it can have.

    “There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of overwhelming grief… and unspeakable love.” – Irving Washington

    In our hearts forever, through laughter and tears – we love you Brenda.

    “Perhaps they are not stars, but openings in heaven where the light and love of our lost ones pours through and shines down upon us to let us know they are happy.”

    Here are a collection of photos of the time our Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation cohort shared with Brenda. What a beautiful smile: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/mppm9bealv2a834/AACixl54O0q-vx2XyDFMmWgSa?dl=0

  4. Avatar Jennifer Corriero says

    Brenda, thank you for the many ways that you have helped me and so many of your students think about new possibilities. We will think of you with gratitude when we make wishes and when we look into the infinite skies.

  5. Avatar Joanna Ashworth says

    Many times I tried to have Brenda Zimmerman join us at SFU’s Centre for Dialogue to share her wisdom on complexity, systems thinking and dialogue. I so wish I had tried harder and now feel the loss of this future possibility. To her colleagues, friends and family I offer my deep condolences.

  6. I got to watch Brenda in action as the Ontario Medical Association’s coach and trainer of our future generation of clinical leaders. I had never seen anyone with the presence, authenticity, passion and command of the content like this woman … notwithstanding that she was working her magic on one of the toughest crowds of professionals in terms of changing mindset and behaviour.

    She lights up every space she is in, and shone that light onto my professional and personal life in the short time I got to know and work with her in the health innovation space at Ivey and more recently at MaRS.

    For that I will forever be grateful.

    Rest in peace my friend. Blessings to your family.

  7. Avatar Seanna Davidson says

    Brenda was a warmth, an energy, a beauty in life.

    When she talked with you, she was wholly present and keen to hear everything going on with you – even in the midst of chaos.

    Every time I saw Brenda I was reminded to be a little silly, be more colorful, and to take a deep breath, exhale, and let the rumbles of life pass.

    Brenda’s presence brought the calm, interspersed with giggles. Such a light, that only brightened those around her.

    We miss you dearly.

    seanna davidson
    former program manger
    graduate diploma in social innovation
    university of waterloo

  8. Avatar Scott Haldane says

    What a sad, sad day. Brenda was my tutor during the McGill-McConnell Program from 2000 to 2002. She was one of the very best educators (along with her friend and co-author Frances Westley) I’ve have ever had. I learned about complexity and emergent/adaptive leadership from Brenda and this has helped enormously in my professional and personal life. I’ll never forget Brenda teaching one of our sessions at McGill while jumping up and down on a mini-trampoline (I forget the topic but I know she was using a metaphor that was perfect for the occasion!). Brenda and her husband Brian Heyday did some work for the YMCAs in Canada and across North America over a number of years which have had a profound impact on a generation of YMCA leaders. She will be missed by so many but her work and her personal impact will live on.

  9. Avatar George Roter says

    Though I never spent time with Brenda personally, she was a prime influence on the lives and worldviews of my most dear mentors and colleagues. The ripples of her work and her spirit reached me, not only through her writing, but also through the ideas and experiences that were passed along, with ferocious inspiration, from those who were her colleagues and students. Brenda truly had an enormous impact in this world.

  10. Avatar Pauline Mantha says

    Not a day goes by without Brenda’s teachings manifesting themselves in the way that I live my life. At work or in social settings, she influenced and changed the way that I perceive the world. She was brilliant, funny, beautiful, caring, an outstanding human being. The planet won’t be the same without her. Bon voyage Brenda XO

  11. Avatar Blake Connoy says

    Simply as just someone that read and was moved by her book, “Getting to Maybe” (with Frances Westley), I appreciate everything she has done and has enabled to be done in the social innovation space. Thank you Brenda!

  12. Avatar Claire Speed says

    I had the privilege to have Brenda as my supervisor on an independent study during my MBA at York – Scaling Innovation: Lessons from El Sistema. It was Bryan Hayday who introduced me to Brenda. They were both out-of-the-box thinkers, curious to learn about complex systems and what made them work; but they also cared deeply about improving the human condition. I learned much from Brenda. She challenged me to dig deep for what was not obvious, to get at the root of what enables a social innovation to succeed. She challenged me to think in new ways – how to achieve “getting to maybe”, and beyond. Hers was a brilliant mind, and York has lost a great teacher. My heart goes out to her loved ones.

  13. Avatar Justin Bakule says

    I met Brenda just once – she was a guest speaker at our firm’s leadership retreat last June. She was the kind of person who was so utterly engaging, open, and thoughtful that after about 1 minute you knew that anything you missed you would be missing at your own peril. After a long afternoon of working with us, she hung out over a game of croquet and a cold beer in the fading light of a summer’s day – she was completely at ease fitting in seamlessly with people who had known each other for years. I’m thankful to have met her this one time and even in that span she influenced me and my colleagues at FSG. We mourn her loss with her friends and family.

  14. Avatar Henriette Thompson says

    I was shocked to hear about the tragic loss of Brenda Zimmerman. I was in the McGill-McConnell Master of Management program (Year 1) and my world was opened up as she shared her insights on complexity science, emergent and adaptive leadership and budget as storytelling. My copy of Edgeware has grown more dog-eared over the years. She was warm, approachable, and brilliant. My deepest sympathy to her family, close friends, and to all, like me, who have had the honour of learning from and with her over the years. May she rest in peace.

  15. Avatar Janis Levine says

    Although I have not seen Brenda since the McGill-McConnell Program, she is always in my thoughts as a brilliant and inspiring teacher. I cannot look at a piece of broccoli without understanding the concept of fractals! I am so saddened by this news, and express my deepest sympathies to her family, colleagues and friends.

  16. My heart is so heavy at the thought of never again seeing your smiling, loving face, Brenda. And there are so few words that seem adequate to describe you and your bright spirit, to list your enormous gifts, to thank you for all you were to me as a friend, a teacher, a colleague, a fellow traveller. You left us too soon but oh what a life you lived while you were here. You were beautiful in every way. I will miss you always.

  17. Avatar Franco Savoia says

    Brenda had a real impact on me when she introduced us to complexity science in the McConnell/McGill Masters In Management for Voluntary Sector Leaders and the rest is history. The themes of systems and complexity have found their way in all aspects of my work.

    Then in October 2014 Brenda and I reconnected at the Collective Impact Summit in Toronto. It was wonderful to see how much her thinking had evolved over the past decade.

    So like so many others, Brenda’s death struck me hard. It very much feels like I have lost a very good friend and mentor. I will try to honor her work by continuing to advance her thinking on complexity and systems thinking.

    I would like to extend my deepest sympathy and condolences to Brenda’s family.


  18. I am one of the many many people who was in awe of, inspired by, and empowered by Brenda Zimmerman — through courses at Schulich and through work with SiG.
    She had been my teacher, had coached me through my own entrepreneurial idea, and been an advisor on case competitions. Most memorable is a special moment we shared when I received news that my dad had passed away~ incidentally, Brenda was the first person I saw after receiving that news. She had so much love for the world and made an impression on everyone she encountered. I am grateful for having been touched by her light. And am so sad for this loss. Sending my love to Jill and the rest of Brenda’s family. RIP BZ.

  19. It was just 6 months ago when I met Brenda and then she became my ultimate resort for all my academic and professional guidance. It was all due the way we interacted on our first meet. She had always eased myself while showing me rays of hope.
    She was more than a teacher, she was actually a kind hearted friend, mentor, companion. Her absence will always be felt around us.
    But more than me, there is her family who will be feeling her absence for entire life. I pray god give them strength to stay strong and be proud of the impact Brenda has created around our world, leaving her great Legacy behind. R.I.P.

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