Well, Happy New Year one and all, it's been a while but we're back and ready for action in 2019! It's the moment that one of you has been waiting for (that person is me) - and today, we're finally starting the BRIX: In Conversation with... series!
On this post, we catch up with Alex Menhams, a man who wears many hats, and is cooking up something good on a number of fronts! In his day job he facilitates workshops and projects based on thinking creatively and strategically around business challenges. At the moment he’s trying to build a channel for open innovation between businesses and social sector organisations through Creative Leadership LAB. When he’s not doing that he coaches people in improvised comedy with his partner in crime Justine de Mierre at The Unqualified Yes.
Previously he has worked as an account director, project manager and copywriter, manager of a tourist attraction and on a West Australian goldmine so we thought we’d get him into conversation…
We met Alex at the MENTA Business Show in Bury St Edmunds and have gradually got to know him better, his journey in the creative industry and his aspirations for the future.
This interview will hopefully give you an insight into how Alex thinks and works creatively, despite not being in a role you would normally consider as "creative".
BRIX: Describe what you do in a sentence …
Alex: I tend to call it "building strategic imagination". The way I see that is people tend to have the data and know their product, but they need new processes, methods and ways of thinking both critically and creatively about the things they want to achieve, and the best way of bringing them to life.
BRIX: Cool, so what does your job look like day to day?
Alex: Generally it's either preparing to facilitate workshops, delivering them or working on longer projects writing, and generally pondering the best ways forward. I spend a lot of time on conference calls!
BRIX: Is this a career you have always wanted to pursue?
Alex: (Laughs) ... It's an interesting one that. I don’t think I knew what I wanted to do for a very long time, so I’ve worked in all sorts of places. A common strand to my work has always been communication, especially presenting, performing and persuading and that’s still the case today. When I worked in marketing and management roles I very rarely bought subject-matter books, but since I discovered creative and design thinking and liberating structures for facilitation I’ve been buying extra bookcases!
I think we can all see that there are major challenges in the world and I think amongst the things that are needed to address that is different and better thinking. Better processes for thinking and collaborating. So I think that's probably my gift - I'm good at helping people to do the hard miles to clarify problems and then generate solutions. It can sound pink and fluffy what I do, but I think it's quite the opposite. If you look at Bloom’s taxonomy creating is at the top!
There are lots of moments that are enjoyable and pleasurable creative stuff though. There was a point in 2007-2009 where I was working on a programme with £2.5m to encourage communities to do new things to tackel climate change by reducing their carbon emissions, like actual funded projects where fresh ideas and new ideas were brought forward. Not just renewable energy either, we did all kinds of things - solar streetlights and thermal imaging of houses.
I think that project ignited a creative spark for me, and switched me on to the value of good ideas, the value of community, the value of collaboration. Not long after that, almost 9 years ago I started working for myself and I think I bring something of that project, into helping leaders create teams and cultures they can be proud of.
BRIX: What is it about your job that excites you?
Alex: I enjoy those moments where I know I'm working with a group and you can see they're getting a lot out of it and are valuing the facilitation that I'm bringing. Their energy is up, they're approaching things in a way that they're finding useful, they are experimenting with ideas and they're enjoying what they're doing really!
I also like it when I’m about to work with a whole new group and there are so many things to discover about how they interact, what they are trying to achieve and what’s stopping them. And then introducing practices from human centred design and creative problem solving that (usually) help move them towards their goal. Even though I usually have a plan, it often feels like extreme improvisation as I try to respond to what’s happening live in the moment.
BRIX: What steps did you take to get to the position you’re now in? Did you study at uni, or did you just work at it yourself?
Alex: So my degree was in English Literature and Language, and I had no idea what I wanted to do with it really. I tripped out of university into marketing, as someone offered me a decent job, so I did that for a number of years. I kind of fell out of love with working in "for profit" marketing roles though and I switched into working mainly with charities and public sector. Since I've been freelancing though, it's been mainly doing commercial work again, so figure that out!!
The key thing for me is not being afraid to learn, and not being afraid to fail. I often try stuff with new groups, and I've got a pretty good strike rate, but I have had a few strikeouts where what I was trying didn't really work. But that’s how you learn – and I’m always boring my two young daughters with pithy reminders that ‘success lies n the other side of failure’ and all that.
BRIX: So I know you mentioned you used to be in account handling role when we first met, so how did that look for you?
Alex: I still work with a couple of London agencies with particular clients of theirs. I act as an account manager or account director on a number of projects, and I still do that, I tend to get brought in as the strategy guy though - so I'm working in that kind of area mainly. I guess that covers a multitude of sins!!
BRIX: So what sort of accounts have you worked on with those agencies?
Alex: I've worked with Shell, in London quite a lot but I’ve also done projects for Channel 4, Imperial College FSCS and others. I quite enjoy the work around internal communications when there is a decent budget and some ambition to make a difference. I worked on Shell’s internal communications for safety and cyber crime. There are about 200,000 people working for Shell, so these campaigns can get quite big and creative.
Most recently, I've worked with Shell on helping them to develop the value proposition for their retail franchising. Obviously most Shell petrol stations are franchised, just like Subway and McDonalds, and they needed to up their game with refining that and telling the story of that in a compelling way.
BRIX: Do you have a favourite project you’ve worked on?
Alex: (Pauses) I always struggle with ‘what’s your favourite’ questions, for some reason my mind doesn't work that way!
It’s hard to pick a favourite, but I enjoyed working with a company called Allia, who are based in Cambridge. They support social enterprises and I ran a number of community challenges for them, which involved helping teams of concerned citizens come up with fresh approaches to social issues in Cambridge, like homelessness, isolation or men's health. We followed a design sprint format with stages for inspiration, exploration, expert input, ideas, prototypes, testing, concept walkthroughs and pitches and that was a really fun project! I’ve also really enjoyed being a mentor at Sync the City in Norwich.
BRIX: What’s one top tip you had for students and young creatives aspiring to get into the creative industry?
Alex: So I think one thing would be keep on failing forward and learning by doing. What I mean is try to get an attitude where you bounce back from failure and are determined to learn from it, or even just ignore it. I think it’s also important to accept your own creativity – not comparing it with other people’s creative output, or at least not letting comparison hold you back.
BRIX: What’s a dream project that you’re still yet to complete?
Alex: I'm trying to get Creative Leadership Lab off the ground at the moment. The idea is to bring businesses together with social sector organisations, and with students and local people to address challenges that matter. If it works it should create a repeatable process that enables people to collaborate in ways that are highly resourceful and a bit rebellious in terms of tackling social issues. I work with loads of different clients, but Creative Leadership Lab I see as more of a movement. Maybe that's a bit grand, but that's the intent really!
That's it for this interview! I really enjoyed chatting with Alex, and it was great to hear how he works and the journey he's been on. Hopefully those of you that are reading this got something from it as well.
If you want to stalk Alex on social media or chat to him more:
That's all for this week, keep your eyes peeled for the next interview!
Adam The BRIX Team