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Farewell to the late Brenda Zimmerman



The social innovation community has lost a great thought-leader. In December 2014, Brenda Zimmerman died in a car accident. No one was prepared for the deep loss felt instantly throughout her network of friends, family and colleagues.

I remember Brenda giving a presentation about complexity theory when, a few minutes into it, my good friend Pat Thompson whispered in my ear, “This is so exciting. I feel I should be putting on my seat belt.” It is a moment we both remember vividly.

Brenda Zimmerman’s career started with a degree in Zoology. She then became a Chartered Accountant. Her ideas about complex adaptive systems really crystallized when she returned to school to do an MBA and PhD at York. Brenda became a professor and the Director of the Health Industry Management Program at Schulich. She wrote her PhD thesis on the subject of “Chaos, Strategy and Equilibrium,” and used her knowledge of complexity science throughout her academic career to explore changes in healthcare systems, hospitals, public policy and social innovation. She co-authored a number of books, including Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed, and Complicated and Complex Systems: What Would Successful Reform Medicare Look Like?

Brenda’s work found the balance between rigorous study, poetry and human vulnerability. Her work in complexity theory laid the foundation for social innovation practitioners as they look for patterns to better understand how they can be impactful in the world. Brenda’s thinking sat squarely at the beginning of a bigger social innovation movement in Canada with Getting to Maybe, co-authored with Frances Westley and Michael Quinn Patton.

She had a remarkable way of introducing us to the science of complexity. At the end of Brenda’s day long session back in 2004, Tonya Surman announced the opening of the Centre for Social Innovation, something she had been working on with Margie Zeidler. “Brenda was one of the people who was so important in helping us all learn and recognize the science behind the work,” Tonya recently said. “I will miss her intellect and capacity to make these ideas accessible to everyone.”

Brenda was one the world’s great social innovation thought leaders. We will miss her dearly, but her work lives on through us.

The nine principles of working with complexity

  1. View your system through the lens of complexity in addition to the metaphor of a machine or a military organization.
  2. Build a good-enough vision. Provide minimum specifications, rather than trying to plan every little detail.
  3. When life is far from certain, lead with clockware and swarmware in tandem. Balance data and intuition, planning and acting, safety and risk, giving due honour to each.
  4. Tune your place to the edge. Foster the “right” degree of information flow, diversity and difference, connections inside and outside the organization, power differential and anxiety, instead of controlling information, forcing agreement, dealing separately with contentious groups, working systematically down all the layers of the hierarchy in sequence and seeking comfort.
  5. Uncover and work with paradox and tension. Do not shy away from them as if they were unnatural.
  6. Go for multiple actions at the fringes, let direction arise. You don’t have to be “sure” before you proceed with anything.
  7. Listen to the shadow system. That is, realize that informal relationships, gossip, rumor and hallway conversations contribute significantly to agents’ mental models and subsequent actions.
  8. Grow complex systems by chunking. Allow complex systems to emerge out of the links among simple systems that work well and are capable of operating independently.
  9. Mix cooperation with competition. It’s not one or the other.

Photo of Brenda Zimmerman

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