Jim McKenney dies at 77

I just got the sad news from Espen. My thoughts parallel Espen’s. Jim was a major intellectual influence in my life and was a remarkable human being.

I remember him as being one of the most non-linear thinkers I know. He saw and understood connections at a far deeper level than most. Trying to follow his thinking was often an exercise in frustration. Many times I would wake up in the middle of the night, hours after listening to Jim explain some complex interaction between organizations and systems and people, and suddenly grasp what he had been saying. I wasn’t as brave as Espen to choose Jim as my thesis chair, but I learned an immense amount from him on multiple levels.

I always thought it was particularly sad that his brilliance and originality was taken by Alzheimer’s. I will miss him.

Jim McKenney dies at 77

Jim McKenneyI just got word that Jim McKenney, Harvard Business School Professor (Emeritus), died last week.

Jim was responsible for the MIS Doctoral students at HBS and my thesis advisor after Benn Konsynski left for Emory in 1992. Jim taught me many things, such as interview technique, longitudinal research strategies, and how to understand corporate strategy from behavior rather than theory. Most of all he taught me how to draw parallels between technical, organizational and societal evolution. He was an expert on the US airline industry (he was on the board of Continental Airlines) and had life-time memberships to most airline clubs, as well as a strong network of contacts in all kinds of transportation businesses.

Jim was defiantly original in everything he did. Small and wiry, he wore a bowtie and spoke quietly and eruditely in large classrooms, constantly surprising students with wry observations on why organizations did as they did. I still remember how I talked to him about an organization that did something specific (I have forgotten what). As I was trying to work out why, Jim said “That’s not a strategy – that’s just bad management!”

Jim had a big Victorian (I think) house with self-tended garden in Lexington where he and his lovely wife Mary held annual summer parties for faculty and friends. As he became my thesis advisor and I also worked as his research assistant, I frequently made the trip up to Lexington to retrieve papers or ask questions.

Jim is one of two reasons (the other is Benn) that I (and my good colleague Ramiro) wear bowties. His reason for wearing them was practical – when he arrived at HBS, he was a poor junior faculty with worn shirts collars, and the bow tie hid that fact effectively. That’s the story he told, anyway. I have a sneaking suspicion his real reason was to be original, though, to mark a distance to the slicker parts of HBS and cut a noticeable and contrarian figure around campus.

Jim was stricken with Alzheimer towards the end of the 90s, and we lost touch. I last saw him in 99, still living in his large house, still gardening, but gradually being reduced. Still, you could find that spark of originality underneath at times, and I like to think he never lost it completely.

My thoughts go to Mary and the rest of the family – may their memories be of an interested and interesting man, well read, soft-spoken, opinionated, kind and unabashedly original.