Reading list 2021

Last year I managed to read 21 books. I’d like to hit 20+ again this year. I usually buy my books from my local indy but I sometimes read in the early morning or late in the night when it is dark hence some kindle titles.

  1. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie finished 8th January 2021. Kindle. I really enjoyed this story. I liked the descriptions of Nigeria and the US and the tales weaved around the main character.
  2. Ways of Seeing by John Berger finished 13th January 2021. Paperback ISBN 9780141035796. A short series of essays which were interesting and have me going down a rabbit hole on art forms and artists. Sadly the book layout is poorly designed and crammed which made it a tough read.
  3. How Women Rise: Break the 12 habits Holding You Back by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith finished 31 January 2021. Audio book. My first ever audio book. I started listening at 1x speed but it sounded too clunky so I tried 1.5x which sounded much better strangely. I always like books on learning more about yourself and others so this fit nicely. Lots of useful tips provided across 12 habits. It helped me to reflect on how I can ensure I support women in my organisation and try to avoid common pitfalls.
  4. Culture is bad for you by Brook, O’Brien and Taylor finished 18 February 2021. Paperback ISBN 9781526144164. How strongly I recommend it: 10/10. I had this book on my long list of things to read but totally forgot to order it at the launch. Thankfully, Sara told me to get it quick snap. In short this book is a must read for any of us who work in the cultural sector and want to know why despite many years of trying, we aren’t yet for everyone. The authors split the problem domain into the creation and consumption of culture. Then through academic research explore how class, gender and race are impacted by our current structures and how this in turns leads to more of the same problems. Ouch. Having the problems lead out so clearly really made me sit up and think how can we REALLY help turnaround. No spoilers but it is safe to say it needs many different people, orgs and policy reform. I’d rather be part of the solution than the problem and this will be a much thumbed through book in the next few years.
  5. Atomic Habits by James Clear finished 28th February 2021. Kindle format. How strongly I recommend it: 8/10. A good short read that gives you plenty of “That’s common sense but I’ve never thought of it like that” moments.

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.

What Matters Now

After several months planning, Friday 10th July saw a group of us meet online to hear 18 speakers and performers explain “What Matters Now” to them.

I was proud to have a small part to play in organising and opening the event. Each person was given 5 minutes to have the digital floor and do whatever they felt. We had petcha ketcha style, poetry, DJ, song, and open minds and hearts. The performers and audience came from across the globe and the energy was 11/10.

The videos will be available soon.

The internet was designed for openess and collaboration. Big check in the boxes for this event.

Thank you to Mike for bringing us all together.

Lots of Love.

Reading List 2020

Last year I managed to read 11 books. I’d like to get 12-15 this year

  1. Grit by Angela Duckworth finished 13 Feb 2020. Paperback ISBN 9781785040207. In short people can do well in life by practicing and not giving up and this can beat “talent”.
  2. The only Investment Guide you’ll Ever Need by Andrew Tobias finished 21 Feb 2020. Paperback ISBN 9780544781931. A witty read that basically suggests you should come back when you have £10,000 or more in savings ha! The section on how to save money is very useful and my aim this year is to try to save 20% of my earnings…..
  3. Sprint: Solve big problems and test new ideas in just Five Days by Jake Knapp finished 27 Feb 2020 Paperback ISBN 9780593076118. A short guide with case studies on how to tackle a problem and produce a prototype in five days. Lots of useful tips I’ll be trying out this year.
  4. Red Notice by Bill Browder finished 19 April 2020 kindle isbn 9781448170937
  5. Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond finished 3rd May 2020 Paperback 9780099302780. Huge thanks to my local bookshop for delivering during the pandemic!
  6. Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein paperback ISBN 978014104001 finished 14th June 2020. A highly readable look at how using “nudges” we can help ourselves and others make better decisions – useful for home and work.
  7. The Spook Who Sat by The Door by Sam Greenlee finished 26 June 2020. Paperback ISBN 9781943138173. A really good read that is about one black man’s vision set his people free.
  8. The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi finished 10 July 2020. Paperback ISBN 9780575088894. My first SF novel in ages and it was good to be lost in other worlds!
  9. How to Stop Worrying & Start Living by Dale Carnegie finished 29th July 2020. Kindle. A short run through of things we worry about and letters from people who came out the other side – a good read during the pandemic
  10. Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala finished 13 August 2020. Kindle. We’re both born the same year and so much of his descriptions of his teens and 20’s match mine (London / Bristol) – from literally countless stop and search*, school folks murdered, shots fired, and the mix of Ghanaian/UK/USA influences. Akala is a gifted writer and I really enjoyed this book. I have seen him rapping live in the past too so it is nice to reconnect too. Highly recommended. *Ive been stopped walking, cycling, driving/passenger and motorcycle.
  11. How To Be An Antiracist by Dr Ibram X. Kendi finished 27 August 2020. Kindle ISBN 9781473570979. Just read it!
  12. Hell Yeah or No by Derek Sivers finished 29th August 2020. Kindle. A book about making things happen. Each chapter is 1-2min read and concisely gives you food for thought and more importantly action…or not. Many of the chapters are also available via his podcast if you prefer to listen. Derek donated all $250,000 raised from the books sold to the Against Malaria Foundation.
  13. Your Music and People by Derek Sivers finished 6th September 2020. Kindle. I respect music enough not to play any instruments and I def can’t sing or rap ha. This book is aimed at helping “musicians” to get their work out in the World BUT you can replace “musician” with any other role and find Derek’s suggestions useful. I really like that creativity isn’t limited to the actual songs but is just as true for marketing/business/connection. I’m looking forward to my print copy later this year.
  14. The Art of Possibility by Ros Zander and Ben Zander finished 13 September 2020. Kindle. A good format book that asks us to transform how we can open up our world view and from I to We.
  15. The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company by William Dalrymple finished 6 October 2020. Kindle ISBN: 9781408864401. The book details how a company grew into an “empire within an empire” and is as much a business book as a tale of the horrors of war, greed, betrayal and loot. Recommended.
  16. Manifesto for a Moral Revolution: Practices to Build a Better World by Jacqueline Novogratz finished 21 October 2020. Paperback ISBN 9781250798770. Such a great book. Jacqueline has been around the globe countless times helping people to make sustainable businesses that have a real social impact. I think it is an important book for anybody in business but certainly those of us in the non-profit sector. In a time of needing revenue more than ever Jacqueline shows that patient capital is where we can really add value.
  17. It Doesn’t have to Crazy at work byJason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson finished 17th November 2020. Paperback ISBN 9780008323448. As Sara and I start to lead BMT this week and England is in national lockdown I wanted to re-read this book which is packed full of 1-2 page suggestions for working remotely and having a calm company. With most staff having to remain at home until at least 3rd December now seems like a good time to help us all remain calm digitally at least. I see no reason that we as a cultural sector can’t remain calm and use digital tools with intent from now. I don’t want being in the office to be a sign of “doing the work”. It isn’t physical vs remote, it is taking the time in 2020 to see if there is another way to leap from how things were to fixing some of our old habits that may be comfy but not as effective as the tools and processes of 2020 could let us be. Plenty of good reasons for human contact too!
  18. The First 90 Days by Michael D. Watkins finished 17th November 2020. Kindle. As I embark on my first CEO role this week I wanted to sense check with Sara how we’ll get momentum. Although we have all of the parts in our heads, this book brings everything together so was worth the read. Working as a job-share it is good to have reference material to align. I like how the guide is aimed at all job levels too. If I had to choose one highlight it is “build credibility early” as nobody knows you from your old success. Otherwise known as a trust battery.
  19. Range – Why Generalists Triumph in a specialized World by David Epstein finished 30th November 2020. Kindle. A really good book that uses lots of examples across fields to show that generalists do well not just specialists. A chapter towards the end describes me well and uses the term Polymath which seems pretty fitting for me – someone who covers lots of areas inside and outside my current domain, without any-longer being a specialist (in my case computing/digital). I’ve previously read some of the research examples such as Grit (see book 1 above). I have talked a lot about “T-shaped” skills being ever more important in the culture sector and this good is a handy nod to this being one of the possible futures you could choose.
  20. The Whole Picture: The colonial story of the art in our museums & why we need to talk about it by Alice Procter finished 4th December 2020. Hardback ISBN 9781788401555. I was really looking forward to this book and it didn’t disappoint. I often like to ask “why” and Alice doe’s a really good good of answering the “why” regarding types of museum, objects and stories that are shown and not shown to the public with an eye on colonial history. Each chapter gives you helpful context with an easy to understand rationale, making the book an easy read for a big subject. The conclusion chapter is something i’ll be dipping back to regularly as my role means that i’m part of the problem but can also be helping lead on readdressing. How can we get over ourselves as people who want to stay employed but yet have a duty to evolve, unlock the stories and relinquish control to who have been directly affected?, Alice says it best right at the end “We have to keep rethinking, keep reframing who we remember and how”. Personally I find it interesting that my journey from working class kid who has taken an unusual path to being a CEO of “the museum establishment” now affords me an opportunity to collaborate on a future path that can choose unlock with intent. Thank you Alice for such an important reminder.
  21. The Practice: Shipping Creative Work by Seth Godin finished 28th December 2020. Paperback ISBN 9780241470046. You should read everything by Seth and I also recommend his podcast Akimbo. Seth makes the point that the only work worth doing seeks to make change happen and you need to be on the hook and stop hiding. The book uses 219 examples to help you remember that you can get better and ship work daily by having a process. I am a fan.

Honda nuts anticipate user need

Photo showing close up of two nuts on Honda CBF motorcycle used to adjust chain tension
Close-up photo to show two nuts that are used to adjust the chain tension of my Honda

My motorcycle chain had become too loose and needed adjusting over the weekend. A friend came over to show me how to do it. The process was loosen the wheel nut (large nut in the above photo to right) , then first loosen the outer nut and then turn the second nut until the correct tension was found. What I found very interesting was the consideration Honda clearly had for us home fixers. Normally the two nuts would be the same size but most people own one spanner set with each tool being the next size down/up thus making it impossible to adjust the nuts at the same time. Honda have obviously considered this and to my surprise the second nut is the next size up thus allowing me to use the next spanner in the set and make the adjustment without having to borrow another spanner from a neighbour.

This small detail to me demonstrates how Honda have carefully considered the “real” world and met my user need before I even knew it. They could have used identical nuts knowing that would likely result in the user having to stop the job and seek out the same size spanner but instead they did the difficult work (two different nuts on the same sized thread and adding one more different part ). Thanks Honda!

10 years on Twitter

According to Twitter, today marks 10 years on the platform for me @zakmensah. I remember resisting for over a year having grown tired of signing up for platforms that never gained traction beyond the early adopters. I’ve never been that interested in being first to the party. I was at Jisc at the time and traveling the UK for events and conferences was a big part of my role. I started to notice that the various unconference/meet-ups were being organised on twitter and I felt left out. I wanted to know which pub was the pub folks were gathering at. As with all new platforms I didn’t get the point for awhile but once I started to discover groups in the pub I was set ha. Fast forward 10 years and I’m  glad I jumped on twitter and its evolution has been interesting to watch. From nerds to the mainstream. In the same period of time many other social platforms have risen and fallen including Google Wave, myspace, snapchat and many others I’ve long forgotten.
I have met great people on twitter, some I have yet to meet in person and others I have hollered at when in their country. I have had wonderful work opportunities, learned a bunch and its often the first port of call when I’m stuck and need advice for work. I like the little tribes such as museumhour and musetech  and following the boxing or F1 for the wit and live emotion.
I like to share on twitter and also keep lots of things private. I can pick and choose as I please which is the whole point. For example I never post family photos and try to avoid tweeting much when at the pub for obvious reasons. Tweets wash over the timeline so I don’t pay too much attention to crafting messages or take myself too seriously. But I do want to live my life a bit on the web as a dry serious me online would be a dull shame.
Happy birthday to the 10 year @zakmensah version of me. Oh and the oldest tweet I can find is me saying hello to someone’s mum.

Good enough

I was just publishing my annual blog post for my reading list and my wife asked “How many people actually read your blog?”. I responded with “I dunno let’s see”. Except I can’t actually show her as it turns out my analytics stopped recording a long time ago. My bad. I decided ages ago not to bother looking at the analytics as I didn’t want to be fixated on growing per se. I write very niche posts here and at the Culture team labs blog for people like me. And there must only be a few hundred people like me across the planet. I know that the right people stumble across here as I regularly get email to ask me questions, jump on a skype call with folks across the world or to invite me to speak at a conference.

The aim for me is to share my experiences for people like me and it appears to work. That is good enough for me.

Reading list 2019

Last year I started quite a few books but only managed to read 7. Let’s hope I find more time this year.

  1. This is Marketing by Seth Godin finished 11 Jan 2019. Paperback ISBN 9780241370148. I always enjoy how Seth Godin manages to make compelling stories to explain how to level up regardless of your resources. I particularly enjoyed the section on direct and brand marketing.
  2. Creativity: Why it Matters by Darren Henley, finished 25 March 2019. Hardback ISBN 9781783963782.
  3. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink finished 25 April 2019. Kindle format. A look at how we should move to a new form of motivate that suits the non-industrial work we now largely do. Dan frames motivation around autonomy , mastery  and purpose.
  4. Retail Therapy: Why the Retail Industry is Broken by Mark Pilkington finished 12 May 2019. Hardback 9781472965103. A good summary of the issues facing UK/USA retail industry. The book is easy to read and challenges the industry to make a ruckus. One great a-ha moment for me was that we typically mark products up by 2.4 but with online it should fundamentally be a cheaper as we have less overheads. Also the supply chain should be shorter so yet more reason to reduce the cost for your bespoke range. The last 1/4 alone is worth the book cost.
  5. First Man In by Ant Middleton finished 16th May 2019. Paperback ISBN 9780008245733
  6. The everything store by Brad Stone finished 25 May 2019 paperback ISBN 9780552167833
  7. Good to Great by Jim Collins finished 14 July 2019 Hardback ISBN 9780712676090. The focus is on firstly having the right people,  level 5 leadership and using your Hedgehog Concept.
  8. The Great Reframing: How Technology Will––and Won’t––Change the Gallery System Forever 23 September 2019  Kindle ASIN B0734P4NHV. I found learning about the contemporary art market super interesting and that the digital challenges in the sector are the same as public sector. Interesting too that the market has lots of checks and balances to prevent the usual “disruption” from tech as much of the high end/sought after works are about scarcity and don’t scale. Can/will artists find ways though to break into the art market using tech regardless. Friction is built into every step as part of the game.
  9. Change for Good – using behavioural economics for a better world by Bernard Ross and Omar Mahmoud finished 6 November 2019 paperback ISBN 978-0692064368. The book was a good introduction into the subject of behavioural economics with easy to follow themes and examples. I had lots of aha! moments about how often we’re in autopilot. The idea of System 1 / System 2 for decision making has given me lots to think about.
  10. Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell finished 18 November 2019 hardback ISBN: 9780241351567. The book focuses on how little we know about ourselves when dealing with strangers and how this can lead to deadly consequences. Furthermore that “place” is often a key element and that “coupling* of place and context is a fascinating topic.
  11. Hostile Environment How Immigrants Became Scapegoats by Maya Goodfellow finished 22 December 2019 paperback ISBN: 9781788733366. A really insightful look at how past history and current policies have led to a “us” and “them” mentally in the UK. Highly recommended.