On listening to advice

Should you listen to advice from others? My answer would be that you should always “consider” other people’s advice if you are stuck and you have asked!

The actual answer to your specific question is nearly always “it depends”.

It depends on XYZ with a smearing of your own context. so having advice from others  will let you think differently and maybe come up with a more informed position. Because if you already knew the answer you wouldn’t be asking. 

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.

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.
  6. Donut Economics by Kate Raworth finished 14th April 2021. Kindle format. How strongly I recommend it: 9/10. Apparently Economists make the world go around so I thought i’d find out more. Kate does a really good job of not only explaining the lay of the land but provides lots of examples of what can be done to do better.
  7. The Art of Relevance by Nina Simon finished 25th April 2021. Paperback ISBN 9780692701492. How strongly I recommend it: 9/10. I’ve been a big fan of Nina’s work for years and I was kindly gifted this book by Phil Walker. Through a series of case studies Nina takes you a journey to understand how you must change. In summary Nina says “We need to matter more to more people” and I couldn’t agree more.
  8. Black and British : a forgotten history by Davis Olusoga finished 24th May 2021. Audio book version.
  9. The Brutish Museum by Prof Dan Hicks finished 19 June 2021. Hardback ISBN 9780745341767. How strongly I recommend it: 10/10. A really strong book that I found difficult to read at points as I have family from Ghana and the brutal stories are alarming.
  10. The Power of Us: How we connect, act and innovate by David Price finished 14th July 2021. Paperback ISBN 9781800191198. How strongly I recommend it 8/10. I liked having UK examples not just USA case studies in the book. Putting aside how the case study companies began, I liked the variety of how people first is good business. I had the chance to join a group session asking David questions the day after finishing the book and was inspired by seeking out others to help you improve.
  11. Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The difference and why it matters by Richard Rumelt finished 1st August 2021 on kindle. How strongly I recommend it 7/10.This books is referenced by so many other books I felt I had to read it. I liked the main premise of actively thinking about thinking to avoid common pitfalls.
  12. Women & Power by Mary Beard finished 7th August 2021. Hardback ISBN 9781788160605. How strongly I recommend it 8/10. As the back of the book says ‘You can’t easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.’
  13. The Art of Statistics – learning from Data by David Spiegelhalter finished 19th September 2021. Kindle. How strongly I recommend it 8/10. A really solid introduction to the fundamentals of data, weakness and communicating. I use data every day and this book has been helpful for me to start focusing on data quality. I would add to my pile of books for anyone who relies on data. An example is I’ve been asked to consider changing museum opening times within the day and it’s easy to fall foul of assumptions.
  14. Business Model Generation By Osterwalder and Pigneur finished 14 November 2021. Isbn 9780470876411 paperback. This is a re-read from about 10yrs ago. I’ve used the core framework many teams but it’s good to brush up on some of the detail as we are set to use across the organisation.
  15. Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain by Peter Fryer finished 18 November 2021. Kindle. This is a re-read from my youth. Essential reading to learn about black people’s contribution and struggle over 500 years.
  16. Mad Mobs & English Men by Steve Reicher and Cliff Stott finished 5th December 2021. Kindle ISBN 9781780335322. A brilliant short book that focuses on the 2011 riots that happened in London and other UK cities. They challenge the idea that the riots are just about crimmials smashing stuff up for the fun of it or looting. Race and class, police approach and policy are all part of the melting pot. I would highly recommend.

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.

That was the “old way” is there another way?

We’re all spending lots of time guessing what might be next. We also all talk lots about “returning to normal”. Yet often the normal way was followed without checking if it was fit for purpose – unless it was of course. So all this week I’ve been trying to use the phase “that was the old way” instead of “return to normal”.

Then today I stumbled over the term collective conservatism when reading Nudge, which refers to the tendency of groups to stick to established patterns even as new needs arise.

It is clear that for the short term at the very least is is impossible to slip back into the old way. Thus now is the time to see if we can shift our culture in a different direction for the long term benefit.

An example is adding to our digital by default ways to include digital communication and remote working. Not remote vs office but default to remote. We’ll see.