That Will Mitchell was a giant in strategy research is too obvious to comment upon. I will focus instead on what I learned about him and from him.
Will cared about the advance of knowledge. He was a real scientist. Real scientists, especially in the hard sciences, care mainly about the progress of science rather than their own publications. Of course, real scientists care about their own publications too, and Will cared about his own publications. But mostly he cared about the effort of the field to understand firm strategies and their implications.
A natural consequence is that he cared about the publications of others or, better, about the contributions that others could give to the field. This means that he cared about the contributions of his students. In fact, we can stretch the notion of “his students” to include anyone whom he had an interesting conversation with. More generally he encouraged the research of anyone he heard in a seminar or discussed research with, and he thought could provide interesting insights on this or this other question.
Will was unconventional, but not in the weird way. He thought that our job is to understand phenomena and that, therefore, we should start from phenomena. This led him to launch a special issue on SMJ on “questions-focused research” and other similar initiatives. Essentially, the idea is to stop focusing on how to do things (e.g. use hypothesis) but on what are the interesting questions or problems. And we can only do it by starting from phenomena, from talking to companies or other organizations, from observing what they do in practice. This was also one of the drivers behind his idea of the Strategy Imagination Forum where he envisioned practitioner and scholars talk to each other in a fortunate series of webinars put up by SMS. It was also one of the drivers for caring about non-profit organizations, socially less advanced contexts, or the management and organization of health services.
Will was innovative. I had the fortune to collaborate with him about a decade ago when videoconferences were still a matter of meeting in special rooms with special equipment. He had this idea of a virtual seminar of Duke and Bocconi PhD students (what? … “virtual?” … a pretty unknown term at the time.) We met every month or so with PhDs such as Nel Dutt, Elena Vidal, on one side of the ocean, and Raffaele Conti or Daniella Laureiro, on the other, debating about research ideas. Likewise, I had the fortune to work with Will on the Virtual CCC PhD Visiting Program last year that matched PhD students with departments all over the world. (By this time the word “virtual” had become commonplace.)
Will had energy, was a leader, taught many things to so many of us that his legacy will be with the field for a very long time. Will also had “weakly-strong” opinions. He entered conversations, be them about research or the field, with an opinion. But he was open to be convinced by good alternative views. This was quite helpful to me. Because I knew he could change his mind, whenever he did not, I knew that he had pondered the alternative argument, which convinced me about his point.
Personally I learned a lot from Will, on top of what I learned from the way he behaved and acted as a scholar. I learned that journal editors are not appointed to count the votes of referees, but have to have their own weakly-strong opinions. I also learned that they should explain well why they are judging the paper the way they are judging it, and that papers that open new directions are often not perfect and you should take them even if they are not perfect because they open new directions. The only thing I did not learn from Will is not to sleep and not to eat, two of his many unique characteristics. But to be honest, I never tried hard.
Will was a giant. His intelligence and generosity will be sorely missed.