Today I was having a conversation at a whiteboard with a colleague — one of those brainstorming sessions where you say “what if we did this“, and scribble something, and then the other person says “yes, but suppose we did that“, and before you know it you’ve figured out something really cool together.
As soon as we realized we had come up with something interesting and useful, one of the first thoughts we had was “surely, somebody has thought of this before”. That question is important, because it’s the difference between doing something fun just as an exercise for yourself, and doing something that can really make a contribution to the community.
At first I was convinced we must be following in the path of others. But the more I thought about it, the less certain I was. Even though our result is useful, the place we started from was a little weird — we hadn’t framed the problem the way this sort of thing is usually framed. Maybe, just maybe, nobody had ever asked this particular question before.
And then I realized that maybe one key to making original contributions is to ask questions that are just a little bit weird. Not too weird mind you — just weird enough.