and then?

Yesterday I visited thinktank museum with my kid.

She chose to spend a day with me. Just the two of us days are very rare so I leapt at the chance. I already want more just the two of us days so I need this to go well.

On the trip to the museum she was asking lots of questions such as:

“Daddy you leave a gap between cars, Why?” I reply “I have been trained to practice keeping a two second gap”. She looks out the windscreen and says “and then?”. So I then reply “well if I keep a gap of two seconds the idea is that if the cars ahead have a problem I then have time to react and slow down”. She quickly works out that by avoiding crashing everyone stays safe through a series of “and then?” questioning. I teach her how I count two seconds by using large objects at the side of the road. She proceeds to count two second gaps for some time and kindly tells me when I’m slightly out.

I think to myself that feeding her curiosity is a great way to bond and for her to learn at the same time. I decide to follow her lead at the museum, ready to answer every question, mostly being saved by the object and story boards on display.

A museum is full of objects and stories. We do a trail about engines. She constantly asks me about each object on the trail and I tell her a story, leaving pauses for her to ask “and then?”

90 minutes flies past and we stay until the museum announcement says they are shortly about to close and then she says “Daddy can we come back again?”.

We didn’t just move the office desk

The forced experiment in 2020 and 2021 of working at home for many gave us a glimpse of the future. Less so where we work but fundamentally resetting how we operate. We could attempt to undo the shift or we can set about designing with intent a different path. If history does repeat itself then fighting the future seems a waste of time. The “Where you work” part of office life has been disrupted but is really only the beginning of the opportunity to meet the future halfway. 

First, a bit of back story. 

Remembering back to March 2020, within the space of a week most of us were sent home to work for a few weeks until Covid-19 died down. The exception being critical service workers.  Except it didn’t and we were in a global forced experiment of learning how to get things done remotely. We had to learn how to communicate through a screen or phone and also get things done without our usual working tools. In short, our whole working practice was thrown out the window on top of the difficulty of living through a pandemic which for me included severe anxiety and homeschooling. 

At the start of the pandemic I was working in Bristol in a leadership role and had responsibility for approx 100 staff and assets that included museum buildings.  

Fortunately I was one of the few with a work connected laptop so I could at least access the bulk of my work tools. I had a laptop by chance because when the previous director left I kept hold of it and hadn’t got around to returning it to ICT. Our service was still 95% using work desktops so sadly many of my colleagues didn’t have supported devices when sent home. The Council was slowly rolling out laptops from 2019 but hadn’t got to us. Quite rightly when the pandemic began the Council focused on deploying devices to critical services like social care and those directly supporting the pandemic relief effort. The knock-on impact however meant that the vast majority of culture staff didn’t have access to key work digital tools like our intranet, HR systems  for the whole time I was at Bristol, I left in November  so that was seven months and counting. A fair chunk of staff were able to do some work from their own personal devices which I was always grateful for, even though official IT policy prohibits non-work issued devices. 

My first hurdle was that our home internet wasn’t fast enough when the whole street was also at home. I haven’t looked into this but my understanding is that the infrastructure wasn’t really set-up to have multiple devices in every home all using their connections at the same time. Hence my average connection was fine pre-pandemic but rarely worked at advertised speed that wouldn’t normally been noticeable. I knew that having a faster broadband speed would be essential. At this point I discovered I was the average lazy person who hadn’t checked for the best deal in a few years. In upgrading not only did my speed increase 4x but it was £3 a month cheaper too at £27 per month.

From April 2020 I was working at home full-time. My wife split her time between her place of work and working from once per week. The kids were either doing homeschooling via iPad or streaming YouTube..ok mostly streaming Youtube. A lifesaver was having two Google Chromecast devices which let us send most audio/video to our two TVs. Perfect for the kids and for joining online zoom calls on the sofa.

The only time I stepped foot in an office was for my interview for my current job as Co-CEO at Birmingham Museums Trust in the summer of 2020. Writing this reminds me that I never went to collect my personal belongings from my desk.

My wife is a key worker so she kept going into work throughout the whole of 2020/2021. In fact only around 37% of the UK workforce was able to do some/fully remote working.  

Trying to homeschool, share devices and share desk space was a challenge worthy of multiple blog posts. My actual work though was totally fine working “remote”. I chalk this up to the fact that in my 15 years of working since finishing university I can’t recall working at the same desk for an entire week. I have always worked on the go and in different environments and designed working practices that work well regardless of where I am. In fact I purposefully use tools that work on any device and have offline workarounds for those times when i dont have internet, like on a train. I have long been saying that when you work for an organisation like Bristol or Birmingham that has staff in at least seven locations then it is already a distributed organisation that has the appearance of being co-located if you don’t move like I move. We have just never purposely designed our organisations around this fact and it may be one of the root causes of negatively when people don’t “feel” part of your organisation. 

Looking ahead into the fog

On the 19th July 2021, in England, most of the legal restrictions related to the pandemic were removed. This included the Government instructing people to work from home. In theory everyone could have returned to the office but we mostly haven’t. It turns out that in the 18 months of the forced experiment many of us discovered that the office wasn’t the only effective place to physically work. It wasn’t all rosy as the social aspect of being together in an office was invisible until the pandemic. Isolation caused by the lack of social interaction in particular has become a key issue for us to overcome whatever the future holds. 

What we learned about working from home is that it can work at scale. For many this appears to be the disruption and case closed. Except only people who wish we could go back to the old ways think this. 

In a very good thread on home v hybrid v HQ, which you really should read in full, is this nugget ‘Disruption is never one variable, but a wholesale revisiting of all the variables.’ says Steven Sinofsky , In short, yes working from home is disruptive but really we are only just getting started on the future of how an organisation will run in say 30 years time. Like a fish that doesnt know its in water, we can’t see the future of work even though we are in it. 

An immediate change even to 2020 for example is that from the 19th July 2021 we can move from just working from home to the more traditional remote working, that could include co-working spaces or a neighbour/friend to help reduce social isolation. However with the pandemic still being far from over I don’t expect a swift take-up just yet.     

What I’m noticing co-leading an organisation of approx 150 people is that the organisation blueprint has been shaken up across far more than using a computer at a different location. Staff are questioning what they want out of work, how it fits into their life  and how we get things done at organisation level. I’ve spent countless hours improving my personal productivity using tools like David Allen’s GTD but whilst useful doesn’t scale. 

As we try to work through the pandemic now feels as good a time as any to start to experiment by choice on the classic organisational blueprint. 

What that could mean for our organisational blueprint: 

  1. Strategic direction – society has no doubt been altered in ways we still don’t fully understand. Therefore we must be both proactive and reactive to change. We’ve all taken the time to reassess what is our purpose and how we can change our structural problems rather than ignore them yet once again. In our specific case, ‘how can we become a place of social trust and belonging?’ ‘how can we be more useful for more people?’ and ‘how can we support others to improve contribute to an improved equitable society?’
  2. Structure – The traditional command and control wasn’t perfect and has been the root of many issues. if the office/HQ is limiting us, how should we operate if we no longer meet regularly face to face or work the industrial age  monday to friday 9-to-5? If people are wanting more flexible work/life balance what does that look like? How do we measure any of this? 92% of our workforce support hybrid working but are we all clear on what we really mean? How can we foster a positive culture in a time of acute uncertainty? What other flexibility can we offer to a workforce who cannot work remotely? Employers must ensure employees have a safe place to work but how can we do this if we don’t know where they are?
  3. Core processes – What communication approaches, systems and tools are needed to allow us to experiment in a non-traditional way? What are the opportunities, pitfalls and risks? Will desk/room booking tools be good thing or a hindrance to creativity? Is it really the end of the office?
  4. Skills base – Do we have the skills to wrestle the disruption and what are those skills anyway? Can we improve our digital skills quick enough in a supported way? Can we diversify now that location and physical barriers aren’t the limiting factor?  Will Gen Z even want to work for us if we don’t change fast enough?

Oh and writing this piece reminds of the film Office Space and  the guy who kept getting moved around the building until eventually he ended up in the basement. 

Services rather than teams

I want, no NEED, to make our organisation even better for the people who choose to use us. To this end i’ve been wondering if thinking of our organisation’s internal workings as a series of services rather than teams is a better way to define the knotty web of a museum.

I hear frustrations from our users/customers/partners and workforce that aren’t often easy to solve and currently it is very hard to follow the “string” of what we do from end to end in order to better understand it and make it better. Typically a user’s journey with us crosses multiple teams and this often leads to both a disjointed user experience AND disjointed design/running of said thing. Who is responsible? If they are both trying to achieve the same then isn’t it really one team anyway? To be clear much of the problem isn’t org specific but the nature of having lots of competing priorities for any organisation that has more than a handful of people.

You never see a diagram or explanation of how many museums actually function. Instead we have team org charts that look similar, even when different organisations do very different things.

The default reaction when something isn’t working is to either move about the teams or change a team by adding people as the theory is more will be achieved. However in practice it is rarely the case. It’s led me to follow the thread of a team through it “doing” something from start to finish.

Long story less long I really now like to thing of whatever we’re delivering as a “service” which let’s me consider the whole process from end to end regardless of the teams it has to through. As an example, The Home Office have approximately 50 services. I’ve been asking people what services they deliver for a few years and it always seems to make people stop in their tracks as they haven’t thought of it (to be fair they know what they do just not articulated as a whol service). I have found some orgs that have a list of servies rhey sell but never their actual list of services.

Thus I wonder if many of our organisation problems would be better served in the lens of designing an organisation around its services not its teams. A team of teams can be born around service design.

Finally it then begs the question if a named team is needed at all or if it should simply be that you deliver X or Y service(s). Once you can define a service then you stand a much better chance of being able to make it better.

I’m not aware of museums currently using service design across the board so thought I’d share now in the hope others come forward. You can read about service design in the context of digital teams at Museums on the Web 2016 and of course Seb Chan has.

Launching our BMT labs blog

This week we launched a new “labs” blog for the good folks at Birmingham Museums Trust to share their experiments, announce new things or share opinions on any topic they wish. The aim of the game is to keep shipping.

My first week as CEO

On Monday 16th November 2020 at 9am (or was it the stroke of midnight?) I started alongside Sara Wajid as part-time CEO at Birmingham Museums Trust. Sara and I are a job share who will both be working three days a week. We have a grand plan which I’ll talk about in the near future. For now I wanted to summarise my opening week, in part for myself but also to help communicate what a CEO does in these critical early days for others.

At the time of starting this role England is half way through a national lockdown and everyone who can work at home must work at home. So the context of my starting is during an international health emergency which also means remote working is our default for now.

Fortunately I love remote working and have plenty of tools to make the transition smooth for me. I’ve long said that I’m really a permanent remote worker due to the nature of my two previous roles, which included regularly working across the UK or locally with teams distributed around the city, I see myself as a remote worker even when I technically have “an office I’m based at”. Thinking back over the past 5 years I can’t ever recall being at my desk for more than a few hours at a time. Don’t get me confused though, I very much think work happens in our buildings but just not the kind many assume. A busy workplace isn’t the place I get my deep work done. Too many interruptions from well meaning people. The same is true of online tools that mimic the workplace with their beeps and notifications stealing time.

I had the foresight to collect my laptop during my last informal visit to see Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery at the beginning of October so at 9am I was good to go.

I like to work in roughly 6 week cycles which is conveniently 16th November to 24th December. This period of time is just short enough to gain momentum but not too unwieldy. Whilst we’re remote working Sara and I will work one full day each and every morning. Coupled with our internal use of technology we expect this to give us the right initial balance. If there is something unmovable in the afternoon we can easily swap.

I want to use this first cycle to get up to speed by learning as much as possible about the priorities, internal culture, systems and skills across BMT. In short I will be reading, listening and asking “why” lots . To this end, in the first week I’ve done 11 1:1s with team managers asking the same three questions (what’s good about BMT? if you were a trustee what one change would you make? What are the attributes of the best line manager you’ve had?) and on day one we held an all-staff online hello event for just over 100 staff. Furlough permitting I want to meet every member of staff 1:1 in the first 30-60 days. I had my first audit and finance committee which was no light read at over 100 pages!

I also want to form alliances as connection is fundamental so I have a long list of people to introduce myself too. I was pleased to meet the Council’s main contacts with the trust in an hour’s rapid fire session.

I mostly use trello for collecting ideas and I can see my private “thoughts on” has collected over 50 items already. I introduced a simple kanban trello board to the leadership team on day 1 that we’ll use for reviewing options and decisions which will be open for all staff to see as part of us being transparent. The beauty of this approach is that Sara and I can contribute in our own time so that all options can be considered without the need for real-time meeting in most cases. Talking of internal communication tools, I really want to introduce Basecamp but week 1 seemed too quick so I’ll take a little bit of time in the cycle to stretch my thoughts on the matter. The aim is to design out remote working with intent for the long-term so then it won’t matter when or where the team is. More on this in 2021.

I also squeezed in recording my talk for the Change for Good seminar about decision science and gave advice to a Scottish based organisation about making money online.

My summary of week one is that the team are clearly passionate and despite furlough, lockdown and difficult recent times with redundancies everyone is eager to make BMT work for its users.

I look forward to the weeks ahead.

Zak Mensah and Sara Wajid appointed joint CEOs of Birmingham Museums Trust

Photo of Sara and Zak standing in the main hall at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery with paintings in the background

Birmingham Museums Trust, one of the UK’s largest independent museum trusts, has appointed Sara Wajid and Zak Mensah as joint CEOs. The pair will formally join the charity in November, taking over from Dr Ellen McAdam who stepped down in June this year.

The appointment is a rare instance of people of colour reaching the highest level of leadership in UK museums, and of job-sharing taking place at this level. Of the 45 institutions represented on the National Museums Directors Council, only one other organisation is currently led by a person of colour. Sara and Zak’s appointment also represents the only instance of a shared CEO role among the group.

Birmingham’s demographic is young and diverse and this announcement further cements Birmingham Museums Trust’s commitment to representing the people of the city at all levels across the organisation.

Zak comes to Birmingham Museums Trust from a leadership role at Bristol Museums where, as Head of Transformation: Culture & Creative Industries, he made a leading contribution to increasing income by 100% within three years as well as ambitious programmes focusing on continuous improvement and technology.

Sara is currently Head of Engagement for the Museum of London’s new museum capital project; previous to that she was Head of Interpretation at Birmingham Museums Trust on a fifteen month secondment where she produced the ground-breaking experimental exhibition ‘The Past is Now’ offering new perspectives on British Empire.

Sara Wajid said: Being appointed as joint CEO to BMT is a very special honour for me and it’s in part thanks to the experience I gained on the Arts Council ‘Changemakers’ programme at BMT in 2016. That’s what I call effective anti-racist succession planning. Zak and I were inspired to apply for this role together through our involvement in Museum Detox (an anti-racist museum collective). We hope it could be a useful blueprint for others considering their future in the sector, and that we won’t be in such a small cohort of people of colour leading museums for long.”

Zak Mensah said: “Birmingham Museums Trust attracts over 1 million visitors a year to its world-class services in Birmingham and online that bring both local and world stories to the public. As a regional museum with a very diverse demographic, BMT is well placed to connect communities locally and use technology to drive audience engagement on a global scale. Sara and I aim to ensure BMT remains resilient and delivers services that are inclusive, allowing people to connect and learn. On a personal note I’m proud to be a demonstration of being part of the change you seek to make at an institutional level and look forward to making a ruckus.”

Niels de Vos, Chair of Birmingham Museums Trust, said: “This appointment is a transformational moment for Birmingham Museums Trust and allows us to plan confidently for the future after what has been a very turbulent few months. Sara and Zak’s experience, proven past results and their openness to experiment and push boundaries is what made them standout candidates.

“The sector needs to diversify from the top if there is to be a real shift in how museums operate and how their collections are presented. Sara and Zak are trailblazers and they reflect the character of this city, young, futuristic and diverse. Their dynamic partnership will mark a very exciting new chapter for Birmingham Museums Trust and for the city.”

Liz Johnson, Director, Museums & Collections Development/ Birmingham, Arts Council England, said: “I’m delighted to be welcoming Zak Mensah and Sara Wajid as joint CEOs of Birmingham Museums Trust – it’s great to see an appointment like this representing such an important step-change for the sector.

“We have worked with Sara on several projects, including as part of our Change Makers programme, and look forward to working with Zak who brings with him an entrepreneurial spirit and drive for innovation. I’m sure they will achieve great things as they join forces and help visitors from across the city and beyond discover what Birmingham’s museums have to offer.”

Cllr Jayne Francis, Cabinet Member for Education, Skills and Culture at Birmingham City Council, said: “This is a really exciting moment for Birmingham Museums Trust, with the appointment of Sara and Zak who will I am sure bring great energy and a fresh perspective to Birmingham and the Trust and how we engage with visitors to its sites.

“I applaud the trustees for recognising the talent available to them and making this prestigious post a job share between two people of colour. I wish both Sara and Zak well in their new role and welcome them to Birmingham.”

The announcement follows the news that Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery will be reopening to the public on Wednesday 7 October, after a significant closure due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The focus of any business plan in the Cultural sector

There are only three states of any business:

  1. Not generating enough money to cover your running costs – Danger zone
  2. Meeting your budget by balancing costs so that your income covers your running costs
  3. Generating a net surplus above and beyond your running costs

The first means close up shop so that’s assume that isn’t us.

Option two is where most cultural organisations sit and should be the initial focus for everyone. Either generate enough money to cover your running costs before your reserves or line of credit runs out and/or reduce your running costs until money in/out match. Its not the most comfortable place to be but perfectly respectable. Most of the folks I meet have 2-4 years to get to this magic number. A commercial business would have 90-180 days. Apply the 80/20 rule. where you apply 80% of your focus on the 20% that will offer the best way to get to the magic number. For example 20% of our retail products deliver approx 80% of our revenue. Same with venue hire customers.

Once you are able to meet budget you can then consider option three generating a surplus. Option’s two and three should be running in parallel where possible (see my thoughts on Scale elsewhere). Option three is about using any surplus to build the future – reserves, continuous improvement (that lead to further surplus of money or resource) and enabling activity not possible under the other conditions.

Most folks in the sector don’t write a business plan to know which of the three states they are in. Write it down. Use Seth Godin’s “The Modern Business Plan“.

Sell what people are asking you to sell

At work we sell approx 50 types of goods or service. We sell goods in our shops for example and our services include permitting, steam train rides, educational workshops and much more. Transactions none the less. I regularly get asked how to start a new revenue stream. For me the answer is simple for a good proportion of the time: Start by selling goods or services that people are already asking us for. Simple.


Case in point are the studios at M Shed. The original purpose was for the delivery of education activity. When not in use, staff would use the space for internal activity, meetings and the like. There was wriggle room for different uses. Any use that wasn’t the original intention or primary purpose I call a “by-product”. Sometime during 2015 we started to get enquiries for hiring a space that was smaller than our event suite. The event suite on the top floor was originally the only space for hire. We soon agreed with the learning team that they and us would both have access to the booking diary and use the space for education or private hire aka a new by-product. Every year since 2015 we have seen growth in the booking of this space which generates something like 5% additional revenue at this point. We didn’t transform or innovate, we simply responded to a user need and make a healthy stream of revenue. 

What are people asking you for that perhaps could be the start of tens of thousands of pounds?