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Shaking The Mouse July 13, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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Back in the mid-80s, optical mice made their first appearance.  Unlike their roller-ball brethren, optical mice used light reflected off a special mouse pad to detect mouse movement.  They were cutting-edge and fun to play with.

In my research group, our Sun workstations used these optical mice.  One day, a sales rep was in our lab demonstrating some software package, when the mouse stopped responding.  Nonplussed, she held the mouse upside down, shook it, and resumed the demo.  Our slack-jawed stares caught her attention, and she explained how the mouse “got clogged” every now and then, and shaking it “cleared the mouse” and helped it work again.

Now, it was true that the Sun optical mouse driver did hang every so often, but it was due to a small input buffer being overrun with too many mouse events.  If you waited a few seconds, the buffer would drain and the mouse would recover, no shaking necessary.  This woman, however, believed that mouse was clogged and that shaking was required to fix it.  It clearly worked: every time she shook the mouse, it started working again.

Determining the root cause of a problem and applying the right solution is a crucial skill, whether you are debugging hardware or solving personnel issues.  Our brains are so desperate to correlate cause and effect that we are easily convinced that some action, no matter how odd, really can solve a problem.  Even worse, as soon as we find what seems to be the solution, we stop looking for the real problem.

In the case of the mouse, some simple analysis of what could actually clog a device with no moving parts might lead you to conclude that something other than shaking was at the heart of the solution.  For larger problems in more complicated systems, it can take weeks and months of digging to find the true root cause.  But if we do not find the real problem, we are doomed to experience it again, compounded with the frustration that our “solution” is somehow not working.  A technical problem is not fully solved until you can connect the dots from the very first event in the failure to the very last element of the repair.

People problems are far harder to debug.  Unlike computers, people are non-deterministic and prone to sudden erratic behavior.  For many issues, we may never know why someone really made a particular mistake or acted in a certain way.  In many cases, the behavior is not repeatable, so our solution cannot be fully tested.  Nonetheless, we are duty-bound to explore as many avenues as possible to make sure we understand why people act in certain ways and how our own behavior can affect others.

Technical or personal, it can be tempting to grab onto the first potential solution and stick with it.  It’s certainly easier than digging and digging to prove that you solved the problem.  But how many times are we left implementing bad ideas or half-baked systems because we didn’t dig as hard as we should have?  Are you really getting to the heart of every issue in your world, or are you just shaking the mouse?


1. abbielundberg - July 13, 2009

Wonderful (and memorable) anecdote/metaphor, Chuck. Alas, I think people are hardwired to seek a solution, any solution rather than take the time to ferret out the root cause of a problem. In any case, anyone who reads your post will likely remember the mouse and at least think twice.

2. Stephanie Calahan (@StephCalahan) - July 13, 2009

Great post and thanks to @abbielundberg for the RT so I could find it! I agree that quick “fixes” are often what we go for these days.

I see it all of the time when I go to doctors. Listen to half of the issues and then say “take this pill.” The pill may mask the symptoms, but often does not solve the problem.

I also see this frequently when clients ask me what they can go buy even before I have come to assess the situation. I calmly tell them that “buying something” is much further down on the list. We must first evaluate the situation and identify root causes to problems. Then we will know what we purchase is going to work.

Great reminder for everyone.

3. Susan Mazza - July 13, 2009

This is such a great story. It is so easy to settle for what seems to be the easy and obvious “answer”. Tim Hurson does a great job of exploring this kind of thinking in his book Think Better.

Although I think the very notion that we can find a root cause to every problem must be reexamined given the complexity of the systems, especially the human systems, we work in and with.

Makes me think of one of my favorite Einstein quotes “the problems we have created thus far cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created them”.

When it comes to problem solving in business today I think our “tool kits” need a major transformation!

4. Ernie Huber - July 14, 2009

I love that Einstein quote as well.

With today’s constantly evolving environment paired with continued cost cutting efforts it becomes too easy to just shake the mouse. I am amazed how differently people approach things when they actually have time to clear their head and really think through things rather than just reacting.

Thanks for the reminder Chuck.

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