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.

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.

So…five years at Bristol City Council

1st July 2018 is a significant personal milestone for me as I turn five as an employee of Bristol City Council’s Culture team. Most importantly I’m happy. I absolutely love what I do and where I work. As a Bristolian, I feel immensely proud of helping the Council run such a great cultural service.

If you’ve ever heard me give a talk there is a good chance you have heard my tongue in cheek remark that “I originally came on a 18 month fixed term contract and by the time they work out how to get rid of me I’d be out the door anyway”.

In reality I set about using that first 12 months to show that digital was a key ingredient to the museum’s current and future success. I got to build a digital team from the ground up and since those early days my role has grown from one team to ten as well as shedding two job titles through promotion.

“We” have delivered lots of pieces of work in the past five years. I say “we” as no project is shipped without the effort from some of the most talented people I’ve had the delight to work with. We do so much that it is literally impossible to keep track 100% of what is delivered even though I try my best. Across the team’s there is at least 1-2 people working 7am to 2am most days of the week which is mind-blowing.

We are a team of teams and these five years have taught me a great deal about other people’s passions within the Culture team. I really love that both digital and transformation get to weave around all the corners of the Culture service so I get a glimpse behind the curtain of a much bigger picture.

I have met hundreds if not thousands of people across the globe who care deeply about using Culture as a force of good in the world. I have spoken at dozens of events and had the privilege of learning from lots of people who care enough to share time with me and the sector.

Do. Try. Deliver. Learn. Repeat.

I just wanted to pause to take the time to say thank you to anyone I’ve come into contact with, worked with, agreed with or “respectively disagreed” with. Transformation is a process not a project. Looking ahead, I continue to work on growing as a leader and helping the greatest city on Earth to deliver the best cultural offer. Getting better means regularly asking my colleagues what can I do more of, less of or what is good enough that should be kept as it is. Seth Godin says be “defenseless” in order to grow …also helps to keep the old ego in check.

I remember reading a guidance document that said a museum professional is somebody with “five” years or more experience. Totally incorrect way to foster good relations eh. I guess my tenture means I need to drop my joke that I’m a professional unprofessional…. and go make a ruckus.

Embrace constraints

There is always more work than the time you’ll ever be able to commit to making that perfect outcome/project/painting. Thus you find all the reasons you can’t ship/finish your workload. ‘I don’t have enough time’ is a common cry in the workplace. But instead of procrastinating use constraints to your advantage.

Pssst “constraints are essential for being somebody who wants to ship their project”.

If you know the edges, limitations of resource and/or time [constraints] you can ensure your project doesn’t become a never-ending saga. Too many projects seek perfection. Nothing good comes from chasing perfect. I used to push lines of code around trying to “improve” the code base and make it “perfect”. Or that’s what I was kidding myself thinking. I was wasting time. I didn’t know about constraints. You should be embracing the constraints as these prevent you from chasing perfect and will help you ship. If you needed 100 days for that perfect project execution but only have 20? great that will focus the mind and deliver “good enough”.

We all wish we had more time but the people who ship work have accepted that their work will never be perfect enough no matter how long they are given. So they ship. They get known for delivering and they ship some more. Embrace the constraints.