Shooglebox blog

Over the last few months we’ve been working with a diverse range of teams as they’ve adapted to the challenges of working from home since Covid19 forced them apart.

Most have found that, contrary to expectation, their teams have actually become more productive in many ways – and communication faster and slicker, with a combination of synchronous conversations on apps like Zoom and asynchronous conversations on tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams.

But there’s no doubt the productivity gains can be outweighed by losses in creativity and innovation … if individuals in teams don’t find new ways to surprise each other with inspiration and ideas.

We work with some highly creative teams – in industries as varied as movies, fashion and retail – and they’ve been adopting some new tools, tricks and techniques to help keep the creative juices flowing when teams can’t be together all the time.

Creativity requires one key ingredient that can be in short supply if you don’t have the habits and environment to prompt it – serendipity.

Great ideas tend to come when your head’s full of knowledge about the problem you’re trying to solve and then you make an unexpected connection in your mind with some completely unrelated information you encounter or re-encounter.

This kind of serendipity can often happen when you’re constantly bumping into lots of different people with the capacity to surprise you with a throwaway reference to something you would otherwise never have encountered.

Whether it’s the water cooler, the bar or the kind of offices Steve Jobs and others have designed to force accidental encounters, there’s an advantage to places where people do more together than talk about their tasks at hand.

Some tech companies are trying to help solve the serendipity crisis with Zoom-style apps that introduce networking coffee breaks or blind-date-style one-on-one encounters. But in practice the experience can seem artificial and awkward.

The teams we’ve been working with have focused instead on what serendipity academics call information encountering – how to switch at times from active information seeking to a mode where you’re more likely to have “accidental” encounters with information you’re not looking for.

Here are three examples of the kind of approaches they’ve adopted, using Shooglebox alongside other remote working tools and apps:

1. Sharing some of the non-project-related things team members encounter in their everyday lives

Everyone is encouraged to squirrel away and share interesting information they’ve stumbled upon away from work – an inspiring quote or passage from a book, a useful YouTube video, a web article they’ve bookmarked to read later.

The result is a highly eclectic collection of things reflecting the very different interests and personalities of the team.

Using Shooglebox, each item is represented by a visual card laid out in a grid so it’s easy to scan the assorted information and see what jumps out at you.

Invariably you’ll spot a card from someone that sends you down a rabbit hole of your own. Or a card will spark an interesting conversation on Slack with one or more others in the team – the type of conversation that’s often lost when teams are separated.

It’s important to stress that this isn’t about actively searching for things you think the wider team might find interesting or impressive. It’s about the things you simply stumble across and find interesting yourself. The kind of things you wouldn’t think ready or worthy to post on social media. The more random-seeming and disconnected from the interests of other team members the more likely it is to surprise somebody else.

2. Forcing curiosity and creativity – setting challenges for each other

Some people are simply more curious than others. They have the kind of mind that’s open to surprises; they notice more things than others; and they capture and store information they think might come in useful in the future.

They’re the people who will create most of the cards in the first exercise above.

Others might need a nudge. Maybe you’re one of them.

Here’s where it can help to create a task that occasionally forces you to switch to a more exploratory mode for a period of time.

One example: You are given three random cards from another team member’s information collection – maybe a news article, a photo of a work of art, a ‘how to’ video.

You can pick any one of them and you’ve got a set time to go out and explore any aspect of it. The task is to pull together a stack of cards to share with the rest of the team.

Sometimes the topic will lend itself to finding loads of cards made from weblinks. Sometimes you might go down a rabbit hole that yields just a handful of really interesting cards relating tangentially to the original card. Sometimes you’ll find the exploration was fruitless. It doesn’t matter.

The aim is to ignite and exercise your curiosity so that over time – like exercising a muscle – you find you’re using it more. That you’re less likely to just do the same Google search as others, to listen to the same old voices on social media, to assume the quick and obvious answer is the right one.

3. Showing and sharing your “workings” with the rest of the team

When you’re working on a project together it’s natural to want to polish your own contributions before you share them with everyone else.

But there are real benefits in encouraging people to share the raw material they’re gathering long before they’ve started to work up their thinking into something that’s more structured and thought-through.

When teams are working together in the same place it’s easy to look over someone’s shoulder as they’re starting to pull together raw material or spread it out on a table or stick it to a wall to scan together.

When kicking off a new project we often encourage teams who are working remotely from each other to set up individual ”Workings” boxes or stacks for each team member.

These are particularly useful in the early, often messy stages of a project when everyone is individually finding food for thought.

By giving everyone the chance to peek in to everyone else’s Workings box it very often sparks new trains of thought or new questions to explore.

Typically teams will be made up of people from different disciplines using a range of different tools to search for, store and explore material.

We use Shooglebox to give everyone a single simple shareable view of the raw material being gathered – presented as cards with assets or embeds on the back of cards or links to material stored elsewhere … Google Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive.

Spreadsheets and structured shared drives don’t lend themselves to working creatively as a group. By sharing highly visual stacks of Workings cards laid out in grids it’s much easier to scan the things people are gathering and think associatively, spotting connections, gaps or areas for further exploration.

And, again, when looking at someone else's unstructured "workings" you're more likely to have one of those serendipitous encounters with useful information you mightn't have found through your own searching.

Getting the Shooglebox team to help your own teams

These are just some of the ways we're helping teams to boost their collective curiosity and creativity and get the best out of Shooglebox .

Sign up for a free Shooglebox account to try it yourself – and drop us a line if you'd like our consultancy team to help your organisation get the best out of it with a team account. Or just to find out more.

We're running a series of onboarding sessions each week and still have spaces in September and October.

Author Lara Maiklem finds inspiration in the discarded objects she finds in the mud at low tide. She talks to Trina Garnett about the joys of mudlarking...

I hadn't heard of the term "mudlarking" until I stumbled across this Instagram post by the London Mudlark. The photo shows a small, green, glass bottle with a name embossed on the side: Sinclair & Son London.

My reaction to the photo must have been similar to Lara's when she found it on the foreshore of the River Thames. It piqued my curiosity and made me pause and think, "Oh, what's that?" In Lara's case she picked up the bottle, took it home and began researching. In my case I stopped scrolling and clicked on the photo. From Lara's research I learned the bottle came from a late Victorian chemist in Southwark by the name of James Sinclair & Son and that they sold Annatto and Rennet as well as medicines. Annatto was a yellow food colouring, made from the seeds of the achiote tree, used to dye cheap butter made from sour cream to make it look more appealing.

The post sent me down the fascinating rabbit hole of adulterated Victorian food where I learned how appalling Victorian food quality standards really were - and how poisonous.

The bottle is just one of hundreds of objects Lara has found on the foreshore of the River Thames. The river is tidal and mudlarks have foraged in the mud at low tide for generations, looking for objects washed up by the lapping water. Some are looking for valuable treasure but others, like Lara, are just as interested in the process of researching the background to the objects as in searching for the objects themselves.

Lara began her mudlarking journey 20 years ago when she went looking for a "bit of peace and quiet" on a lunch break at her publishing job in the centre of London. She followed a narrow set of steps down to the River Thames and discovered a world away from the bustle of city life. What she found among the debris on the foreshore was a treasure trove of London's history: everyday objects discarded over hundreds of years that tell the stories of ordinary people who lived, worked and travelled in the City.

Lara believes there's a story behind every object – and has collected some of the stories she’s found in her book Mudlarking, which is this year's Non-Fiction winner in the Indie Book Awards 2020.

Over the years the things she chooses to pick up and research have changed...

"When you first start mudlarking you tend to pick up everything," said Lara. "I'm looking for things that look unusual, that I haven't seen before; things that look out of place. I've stopped picking up pottery unless it's got a pattern on because there's just so much; what I look for has evolved with my journey.

"Most of the stuff I find is small. I don't bring any big stuff home because I don't want to have to store it. I've got a Printer's Chest with 18 drawers – most of it fits in there and then I keep a record of it in my head and in a kind of code no one else understands. Now I've got my Instagram page all my research is on there. It's all shared with everyone else and if I need anything I just scroll down my Instagram page."

Lara explains her research process...

"In terms of identifying objects you can tell if something's been touched by the hand of man or woman, you get a feeling for it. It's something you get with time, like someone who spends a long time handling antiques. You can feel if there's something right or wrong about an object.

"Once you've got the object it's a process of researching using different alleyways. I've built up a network of experts to email and I spend a lot of time wandering around museums and looking at weird and wonderful books. I know a lot of collectors who devote their lives to collecting specific things. Then there's the Portable Antiquities Scheme Database, part of the British Museum, which is free to use. They've got records of over one million objects so if you have an inkling of a time period for example you can look it up. You can often find something on there that's at least similar so you can start there. If I draw a complete blank I can go and see my Finds Liaison Officer and of course I record the things I find. They have access to all the museums and specialists in museums. I've got the Facebook page and Instagram and Twitter and if I put things up there are people all over the world that follow me that are specialists in all sorts of areas.

"I've just found a piece of Roman kiln that I've never seen before. I spoke to a friend of mine who's a foreshore archaeologist and he suggested contacting the Highgate Roman Kiln group – there's actually a group devoted to Roman kilns in Highgate! I do an awful lot of talking to people who have specialist knowledge."

Not all the objects Lara finds are ancient, and not all are lost: some have been deliberately thrown into the river to be forgotten. Lara has found wedding rings and love tokens that have not lasted the test of time. This silver 16th century posey ring is inscribed with the words "I LIVE IN HOPE".

"The river is full of lost stories. People throw their stories into the river to lose them. A lot of the things that have gone in the river have been thrown in because people don't want them any more. Maybe they hold painful memories and the river's a good way to get rid of them; people still throw their wedding rings in and their engagement rings. There's lots of those. And you find all sorts of love tokens, modern ones as well as ancient ones. So people have been doing this for centuries. Something about the water is it moves, it's taking things away, taking away your problems – maybe it's that."

As a long-time editor of illustrated books Lara is used to finding the story in a picture and telling it succinctly, much like an Instagram post.

"I'm interested in everything, but it's about picking out the stories that have a broader, wider appeal. When I find something, I condense it down to the interesting stuff and put it on Instagram. I love weird facts and have a brain stuffed full of useless information, but it's become fairly useful now I do this."

One of her favourite finds is a child's Tudor shoe "because it's so personal." The clay of the river is anaerobic and so objects are naturally preserved in the mud but as soon as they're exposed to air they start to deteriorate. It is rare to find a whole shoe from Tudor times and so Lara wrapped it in a plastic bag and stored it under the stairs until she could find a specialist to help her preserve it properly – a process which took two years.

When Lara first started posting her finds on social media it wasn't popular with everyone.

"I was the first mudlark to start posting about it on social media in 2012 and there were some people that really didn't like that. Some mudlarks wanted to keep an air of mystery around the hobby, but it's a shared history and I think you have to accept that people have enquiring minds. Bankside is now a busy tourist destination so obviously more and more people are going find their way down onto the foreshore, the cat is out of the bag so let's accept that and educate people to mudlark responsibly and safely."

Lara also started sharing her finds as a way of keeping contact with the outside world when she was at home after the birth of her twins.

"I was doing all this research and not sharing it with anyone and I wanted to talk to other people who were interested in all the weird stuff I was interested in. Until 2016 I did it completely anonymously, I was just "The London Mudlark", and then I was contacted by an agent about writing a book so that forced me out of anonymity. Then there came a point where people started leaving Facebook and going on to Instagram so I thought I'd start on there too. Lots of other mudlarks post on social media now and I feel quite honoured to have been the trailblazer.  I think people should be sharing, it's good to share, but Instagram has also brought a sense of competition with it that didn't used to be there and that's not what it's about for me."

There are so many potential stories out there Lara agrees it can be difficult to know when to stop researching.

"When you're researching something you can go off on tangents forever. Say you find a gun flint. You can talk about the gun, you can talk about the war it might have fought in, the actual moment it created the spark that pushed the bullet out that hit someone and what happened to that person, how they were hit, what it felt like to have a musket ball tear through you. Or you can talk about the people who made the gun flints in Brandon, Suffolk, where most of the gun flints came from and they had the most dreadful lives. They produced thousands of gun flints a day and they died very early because all the chips and the dust got into their lungs. And how the mines in Brandon produced all the gun flints that we used during the Napoleonic wars. You can go off down any rabbit hole you want and you have to in the end just stop because a new object will come along.

"It's like the piece of Uranium glass I found. In itself it's fascinating but that led me off to learn about the Radium girls and the women who painted the dials on the clocks who were told to lick the point of the paintbrush they were using, dip it in the radium and then they got these dreadful cancers but companies were denying it. I put up that post and a doctor from St Thomas's got in touch with me and said "Bring your piece of Uranium in to us and I'll run a Geiger tester over it to see how radioactive it really is." - So there's another story. These stories are never-ending!"

To find out more follow Lara on Instagram or check out her book Mudlarking and its companion Instagram page.

Lara Maiklem is the author of Mudlarking, published by Bloomsbury Publishing and out now in paperback.

See more about mudlarking on Shooglebox

Shooglebox auto feeds are great for keeping tabs on a specific topic or keyword. They're quick to set up and will automatically drop search results into your Shooglebox and turn them into cards. Here's a Mudlarking box we made earlier of recent social media posts posted publicly by mudlarkers.

Find out more about Shooglebox and create your own box for free.

There's one thing that marks out truly creative thinkers, and that's their boundless curiosity.

If you're looking for ways to boost your own or your team's creativity, the starting point is actually simple: Don't try to be more creative – be more curious.

Creative ideas spring from new combinations of existing elements – so the broader your knowledge and experiences the more likely you're going to have that Eureka moment.

But in these days of instant Google results, handy Wikipedia pages and algorithm-driven newsfeeds it's easy to confuse the desire and ability to find quick answers with true curiosity – that habitual inquisitiveness and drive to dig deeper into a topic than other people and disappear down rabbit-holes that yield unexpected discoveries.

There is such a thing as a creative process – and Shooglebox was designed primarily for people who use it; people who go down and up so many rabbit holes they need a better tool than the ones they've got to help them squirrel away and explore the things they find. 

So – if you're curious enough – here's how to get the best out of Shooglebox

Step 1. Create a box for the project you're working on

This is the repository for all the raw material you'll gather as you start to explore your project. Give it a name and cover photo – and maybe add a card or two with notes to remind yourself what you were thinking as you set off on the project.

Step 2. Create another box for all the random interesting things you come across day to day

Creative people are able to become fascinated by any topic under the sun, acquiring and hoarding all sorts of information. Writers used to keep commonplace books to store quotes, thoughts, facts and anything that might one day come in useful and be woven into their own work.

Step 3. Go out and find as much as you can

Dig deep into your subject, hunting for information, insights and the little details others skim past. Don't give up after 10 pages of Google search results. Go out into the real world. Chase down original sources and give yourself time to go off at tangents. Seek out opposing views about your subject. Create cards for everything you find, even things you're not sure will come in useful.

Step 4. Throw everything you find into the box unsorted

Resist the temptation to start sorting and structuring your material too early. You're still in the exploratory phase. You want to be surprised. Shooglebox lets you sort your cards into stacks within a box but don't do that at this stage. Really. The messier your box the better. It will yield far more surprises if you don't organise your cards into "folders". 

Step 5. Review and explore your cards on a big screen

You might be using the Shooglebox mobile app to quickly add things to your box – dictating notes converted to text, saving web links and social media posts, images, videos – but when you're ready to explore your cards it's best to find the biggest screen you can. This is when you can zoom in and out of a grid view of your cards – like sticking the contents of your box on a wall and standing back to take it all in. At this stage you're looking for connections or themes. Adding links between cards helps you come back to explore them later.

Step 6. Go out and find even more

Exploring your cards has helped you spot gaps in your knowledge and thrown up lots of new questions. Armed with these, you're off on the hunt again. Of course, most people will have given up by now and settled for an obvious answer or solution.

Step 7. Re-examine your box – give it a shoogle!

Look at all the information you've gathered for your project from as many angles as possible. It can help to give your box a little shake – or shoogle – to see if shuffling the order of your cards throws up something you missed before. Dipping back in to your commonplace box full of random stuff might also prompt a surprise thought. Really great ideas come when you make unexpected connections between something you're actively researching and something completely unrelated that's lodged itself in your brain in the past. As Steve Jobs said: "Creativity is just connecting things."

Step 8. Share your workings

You'll come up with your best ideas when you're not concentrating on the problem you're trying to solve. If you've put in all the groundwork above you're much more likely to have that Eureka moment when inspiration strikes. Once it does, you can use Shooglebox to create a more structured set of cards to share your output with others. You can share a read-only link to a stack of cards with non-Shooglebox users. Or you can share a box with other Shooglebox users and collaborate together to build on where you've got to. In these days of remote working under lockdown it can be hard to harness collective curiosity and come up with creative ideas. Shooglebox makes it easier.

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