If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.-Albert Einstein
The greatest challenge in writing an essay of the size 1000-1200 words is to generate enough ideas to write an interesting, informative and useful essay. Suppose you have to write something on the topic ‘Honesty is the best policy’, you can easily write 100-200 words. However, to expand this topic to over a thousand words needs many interrelated ideas to be generated quickly. The process of producing a host of ideas in quick succession is often called ‘brainstorming’.
Brainstorming is an activity designed to generate lots of ideas for solution of a problem. It involves coming up with many, often radical, ideas. Brainstorming helps us think out of box and break the traditional patterns we are programmed with to generate newer ideas. No idea is judged at this stage and they are merely noted down. Some ideas many appear absurd, bizarre, impractical, idealistic or even outright stupid. However, at this stage the mind is allowed to freely manufacture the ideas. The evaluation of ideas begins only after the brainstorming session is over.
Once all the ideas are written down, select the good ones and reject the bad ones. Since you have a word limit for writing your answer, you must select the ideas based on the time at your disposal and the word limit allowed. Once you have selected the ideas, you must then sequence them in the order of priority as well as in the order of presentation. It should be ensured that the priority ideas are not left out due to the limitation of the words or time and that they are presented in the right order at the right place in such a way that one idea appears to flow from the previous one.
Conventional and Lateral Thinking
We are trained since our school days to think and work in the conventional style. The practice in most educational institutions is to award more marks to those who write the standard answers rather than, creative ones. So, as we grow older, we develop the conventional style which is a structured or logical framework to create a product, system or service or solve a problem. Conventional thinking is useful in solving routine problems, answering prepared questions and analysing a well-known issue. One can also use the conventional thinking for the design of a product, service or system whose needs and functions have already been identified. Conventional thinking also helps us in root cause analysis by following a standard protocol to identify the causes that lead to the problem.
However, almost all real life problems have some novelty in them. Hence, they can’t be solved by using conventional thinking. We thus need to be creative and follow lateral thinking, which involves an out-of- the-box innovative approach. Lateral thinking is useful in solving new and unconventional problems and writing the answers of unprepared questions like the essays asked in the civil services examination.
Lateral thinking is highly useful in the fields of arts, music, poetry and writing which need high level of creativity and originality. Lateral thinking helps when breakthrough discoveries and innovation are needed since the problem can’t be solved by conventional method; or, when the incremental innovation or methods are not working. Brainstorming facilitates lateral thinking.
An Example of Lateral thinking
There are 63 players in a tennis tournament. The tournament follows the ‘knock out’ method. If you lose a game you are out of tournament. Top 8 players play the quarter-finals; their 4 winner play the semi-finals; their 2 winners play the finals; and the winner takes the trophy.
Question: How many total matches are to be played in this tournament?
Answer: If we follow the conventional thinking, we have to find the number of games to be played in Final (1), Semi-final (2), Quarter-final (4) and so on. This is a long process and takes time with good chance of miscalculation.
However, if we think laterally (out-of-box), we can easily see that in every single match, one player is knocked out. Only one player, the winner, is not knocked in the tournament. Hence, the total number of games in the tournament has to be ‘total number of players less one’. Hence, the answer in this case is 62.
How Brainstorming Generates New Ideas
Our brains are ‘pattern recognition systems’ and we are rarely used to think out of the box. In all our examinations, we are discouraged to suggest creative solutions of the problems. We have well defined problems in our text books and we also have the well-defined ‘right’ answers for each problem. We score highest marks when we are able to reproduce the already known solutions.
As a child, we are quite creative and we always like to experiment and explore. However, as we grow in our lives, we lose our power to be creative as we usually get ‘stuck’ with patterns and think within them rather than coming up with creative ideas.
In the real world, the same problem is rarely repeated. Just like we can’t dip our hands in the same
water in a river, we can’t encounter exactly the same problem ever again in life. Hence, while solving the real world problems or writing an answer of an unprepared topic, we need to get out of the conventional thinking mode and be creative. The process of brainstorming helps us think out of the box and generate new ideas.
Brainstorming the Topic
The process of brainstorming involves rigorous thinking on the topic of the essay, rather than trying to come up with immediate answers. We explore a number of questions to understand the issue at a deeper level so that the best solutions can be found in an orderly way. Hence, we pose questions like,
Let us see an example of brainstorming.
Essay Topic: ‘Customary morality cannot be a guide to modern life.
·What is morality?
·What is customary morality?
·What is modern life?
·How is modern life different from the traditional or old life?
·Why are people guided by customary morality?
·Why should people not be guided by customary morality?
·What should be the right thing to guide a modern life?
·How can that right thing guide people to lead a modern life?
When we attempt to answer these questions, we end up pooling enough ideas and resources to write a good essay on this topic.
Rules of Brainstorming
Brainstorming releases the hidden energy of our creativity. We must learn to manage this energy well, else it may become counterproductive. Often, people generate so many ideas during brainstorming that they get confused and fail to take decisions. In order to make the best use of the brainstorming, we must follow the following rules:
1.Set a time limit: It is important to allocate an upper time limit for brainstorming as the flow of ideas, once started, never stops. The limit must be decided depending on the level of complexity of the problem and the time available. The total time available for the Essay paper in the Civil Services Examination is 180 minutes. It would be reasonable to allocate10% of the time for brainstorming, i.e. around 10 minutes for each essay.
2.Begin with a target problem: It is common to lose track of the problem when new ideas start flowing in. We soon start getting ideas that are irrelevant to the given issue. It is important to define problems precisely, plan our goal and stay on the topic.
3.Refrain from judgment/criticism: As we are trained to solve a problem in a conventional way, we are often unprepared to accept an idea which is too radical. However, when you allow your mind to think freely, flow of such ideas is inevitable. If you start judging each idea using your conventional thinking, the flow of ideas may stop and the purpose of brainstorming may get defeated. Hence, you should not be negative about any idea.
4.Encourage radical ideas: If a radical idea emerges, you must appreciate it, because it would encourage many more such ideas to flow freely. You must, therefore, allow free flow of all types of ideas as long as they are on the topic.
5.Aim for quantity: The purpose of brainstorming is to generate as many ideas as possible in limited time. Quite often, the quantity breeds quality as you have more ideas to choose from. You can later do the job of sorting the bad ideas out and picking the good ones.
6.Combine and improve ideas: It is common to get many repetitive or similar ideas during brainstorming. It would be better to combine similar ideas into one new and improve upon it. We can also expand on others’ ideas that we may recall to create another idea and get new insights.
7.Note down points, make diagrams: Ideas during brainstorming are spontaneous like bubbles. They go as fast as they come. You must keep noting down the points and make suitable diagrams to remember and use the ideas during your essay writing. When you are noting the ideas with pen and paper, you mind is also better focused and helps you bring ideas to life as soon as the brainstorming is over.
8.Allow one conversation at a time: When the brainstorming session is done in a group, often the outspoken people force their ideas on others and the silent but creative people keep quite. It is, therefore, important that people must not be allowed to interrupt when others are speaking. This will ensure that every good idea is given due respect. Similarly, when we are brainstorming ‘within our mind’ for the purpose of essay writing, we must not abruptly jump from one idea to another. We must rather keep focused on one idea at a time and explore all connected ideas or all related aspects of an idea together, before moving to a new idea.
Challenges of Brainstorming
While brainstorming is an excellent method of generating new ideas, it also poses some challenges in its execution. If you lack the clarity of goals and purpose; or if you have too many goals, it may diffuse your focus and waste lots of your energy as well as time in aimless wandering. When the brainstorming is done in groups in an organisation, often the introverts stay quiet while the extroverts dominate. So, it must be ensured that every member of the group gets an equal opportunity to contribute. Sometimes, brainstorming may create a large number of ideas and throw multiple alternative solutions, which instead of giving more clarity, confuse the decision maker since it becomes difficult to decide which one is the best.
The generation of new ideas using brainstorming is a skill that can be mastered only with practice. You must practice brainstorming on a large number of essays and descriptive-type answers to internalise the process so that you can use it effortlessly at the time of need.