Lessons from a Festival

Later this week, I’m starting a role managing a very exciting new project within the University of Edinburgh.  The Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program supports Africans from economically disadvantaged communities to study here in Edinburgh. It’s an incredibly inspirational programme that aligns with so many of my experiences and passions. Every aspect of the program is and will be designed around the concept of transformative leadership - full of learning opportunities for students to get their hands dirty, be bold and brave, reflect on their experiences, and make a difference in their community here and back home. I’m looking forward to the challenge, collaborative partnerships, and all the great things that will come from it. And never fear – I will still be Go Jo-ing on the side!

This also means a goodbye. For nearly two years, I have been working at the Institute for Academic Development on a portfolio of various strategic projects around curriculum innovation and student engagement.  I’ve been lucky to work on a range of activities but one of the biggest has been Innovative Learning Week. ILW is the University’s very unique festival of creative learning which has taken place each February for the past five years. Staff and students are invited to play with their learning experience in collaborative and creative ways and this past year – we hosted nearly 275 events throughout the week run by 300 people. We reached 1 million people online and our impact has been great.

In all honesty, ILW has been both a blessing and a curse for me. At a particular low point with the festival, a friend of mine compared it to a bad boyfriend.  But I’m so proud of how we have turned it around and on my last day at the IAD – I made myself a cup of tea, put on my made-for-me Spotify playlist, and gave myself a moment to reflect and share on the lessons from over the years.

Here are a few I’d like to share.

Designing together as an act of trust & faith.  

Over the summer, we collaborated with the dynamic folks over at Snook on Open ILW – a short term project to rediscover and redesign ILW in a way that is meaningful to our University community. We did stakeholder interviews, a design workshop, and a service blueprint which helped inform a new festival manifesto, a new support framework, and a handful of tools for people to make their idea dreams come true.  Not only did this approach of letting people in help us create a more meaningful experience, it allowed us to give ownership away. ILW 2016 was built together. 

More than anything, I think it was about faith and trust. In a big institution – the system doesn’t always necessarily allow us to have this with one another.  By giving people ownership to design something big, it creates a different kind of relationship that we need to see more of in the University and other large organisations.

The process is as meaningful as the final product.

I say this a lot, especially these days but it’s really so true.  I’ve seen it through every project I’ve been a part of and when they are successful – there is a value placed on the process over the final end product. It’s not just about the event delivery or final presentation but about every interaction, experience, email, the style & tone, and opportunity in the lead up and long after. For ILW, we made things with our hands, experimented with new ways to support ideas, took risks, and made mistakes along the way. If we were asking others to do this, we needed to do it as well.

Putting people at the centre of the process is even better.

When we realised that ILW was about people – not just events or ideas – it changed the game for us. It allowed us to better understand the process, experiences, challenges, and opportunities that lay before us. 

Show your work.

I’ll say it again – show your work. How you tell the story of your journey is just as important as the final campaign. When working in a complicated system – we have a great deal to learn from one another about the how. By showing our work, and being open and honest about the process – we learned more, felt less defensive, built a more resilient community, and made better things happen. It might be messier, but it’s more meaningful.

Find joy in your work.  

I talked a bit about this at a Creative Edinburgh event, but it’s something I have come to understand a bit more through ILW and a few other projects this year. My intitial thoughts on this were inspired by a great podcast on On Being about Fr. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest famous for his gang intervention programs in Los Angeles and his connections between service and delight, and compassion and awe. Every bit of work we do is an opportunity to find joy in the work itself and in each other. I find it hard to believe that others will find delight in the experience when we ourselves are not having a bit of fun and enjoyment along the way.  No doubt practicing joy and delight in our work lives is difficult, but ILW has shown me it’s worth it. It helps you keep your head up along the way.


Thank you to everyone at the Institute for Academic Development for the past couple years – the good work you do, the neverending supply of sweets, and the notes of support for my work.  Thanks to Lara and Jon for your support and letting me run with it a bit. Thank you to Silje for coming in late to ILW and being patient and understanding with all the bits of information swimming in my head (hopefully it’s all out now) – it’s been a real pleasure working with you. Thank you to all the amazing event organisers and School Coordinators who have put so much energy, care, and compassion into their work – oftentimes unrecognised. You are my heroes. Thank you to Dave McNaughton for the countless coffees and chats about what we are building and letting me shoot confetti guns, blow up balloons, and be part of something special – I owe you an ‘E’.

Onto the next adventure x 

Photos by the amazing www.aliceboreasphotography.com