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Thursday Complexity Post
December 18, 2014

Brenda Zimmerman:  

Complexity Scholar and Mentor to Many


Brenda Zimmerman, a renowned scholar of complexity science, author, educator and long-time science advisor to Plexus Institute, died December 16 in an automobile accident in Toronto. She was 58.

Brenda Zimmerman


Saddened friends and colleagues in the Plexus community are remembering Dr. Zimmerman's wisdom as they try to make sense of the loss. Liz Rykert, president of MetaStrategies in Toronto and a former Plexus trustee, recalled Dr. Zimmerman as a mentor, colleague, and friend. "Brenda was the one who introduced me to the ideas of complexity and to Plexus even before it was Plexus Institute," Rykert said. "She was great fun to be with and she sparkled when she had a new idea or insight. I will miss her deeply and will always be inspired by her ideas and the methods she shared with me to make sense of the messy world around us."


"My heart goes out to her family and friends," Rykert continued. "Their loss is unimaginable. I suspect the paradox will be that somewhere amid all the loss they, and we, will find the threads to begin our sense-making together."


Plexus President Jeffrey Cohn, MD, MHCM, also sought solace in Dr. Zimmerman's wisdom. "Brenda's work strikes me as being both provocative and practical," Dr. Cohn said. "She challenged paradigms while helping to describe ways to create conditions for groups of people to discover and create solutions that work for them. Brenda developed the framework of the wicked question. In that spirit, how can we mourn her tragic loss while/by celebrating the impact of her work?"


Keith McCandless, co-founder of the Social Invention Group and a practitioner of Liberating Structures, was a friend, professional colleague and frequent collaborator with Dr. Zimmerman. "With loving kindness and verve, Brenda 'translated' complexity science concepts into everyday organization life," he recalled. "She stood out as a great learner, a disciplined scholar, and a fabulous teacher." 


Dr. Zimmerman was a professor of policy and management at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto and director of the university's Health Industry Management Program. She was the author of dozens of papers and journal articles applying complexity science concepts to organizational strategy and system level change. Her insights from complexity science have been influential in healthcare, hospitals, and educational systems. She studied public policy and social innovation and researched how distributed control in organizations and systems functions and how an understanding of complexity processes can enhance generative potential in public and professional relationships. She received the Teaching Excellence Award in 2009 for Teacher of the Year in Schulich's MBA program.


Dezso J. Horvath, PhD, CM, dean of the Schulich School of Business, called Dr. Zimmerman a brilliant and innovative thinker and one of the school's brightest stars and one of the most inspirational and well-loved faculty members. "To the Schulich community, Brenda was an excellent researcher, teacher, mentor, colleague and friend."


Dr. Zimmerman is co-author of several books, including Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed, which she wrote with Frances Westley and Michael Quinn Patton, and Edgeware: Insights from complexity Science for HealthCare Leaders, which she wrote with Paul Plsek and Curt Lindberg. She wrote the report "Complicated and Complex Systems: What would Successful Reform Medicare Look Like?" with Sholom Glouberman, published in 2002 by the Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada. She also wrote numerous book chapters, including "Generative Relationships: STAR," with Bryan Hayday, in Glenda Eoyang's book Voices from the Field, and she authored two chapters in the book On the Edge: Nursing in the Age of Complexity, by Curt Lindberg, Sue Nash and Claire Lindberg.


Curt Lindberg, a founder and former president of Plexus Institute and another of Dr. Zimmerman's co-authors, called her death a tragic loss. Henri Lipmanowicz, a founder of Plexus and its Board Chairman Emeritus, said, "We were lucky to have known her. She was one of a kind. A beautiful and caring person."


Michael Quinn Patton is an organizational development and evaluation consultant, and complexity scholar. "Without Brenda there would have been no Getting to Maybe book and no subsequent Developmental Evaluation book," Patton said of the book he co-authored with Dr. Zimmerman and the pioneering book on evaluation he later wrote. He noted that Chapter 4 in Developmental Evaluation tells something of Dr. Zimmerman's influence on his own work and on the evaluation field generally.


Dr. Zimmerman earned her bachelor's degree in zoology at the University of Toronto and completed her MBA and PhD degrees at Schulich. She led Schulich's Health Industry Management Program for a decade, developing the curriculum as well as executive education programming. She was program director of the Schulich Executive Education Centre Physician Leadership Development Program for the Ontario Medical Association-Canadian Medical Association. She also served on the Advisory Committee to the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada and was a member of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences.


Dr. Zimmerman is survived by her husband, Alan Ellis, and two daughters, Stephanie Zimmerman, and Gillian Kennedy, a Schulich MBA graduate who has also pursued a career in the health industry.





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