May 7

End Squeaky Wheel Syndrome by Changing the Way You Prioritize

The following insights were gleaned from a presentation at INDUSTRY given by Jenny Wanger at Spothero @JennyDove. Download Product Management TACTICS eBook for more.

Whether they realize it or not, many product people decide what to build next using the “squeaky wheel” prioritization method, where the person screaming the loudest gets their way. But instead, it’s best to focus on basic principles of prioritization: customer needs, business outcomes, and available resources.

We’re all bound by the space-time continuum. We only have 24 hours in a day, and we simply can’t be in two places at once (at least not in the year 2018).  As such, we can only work on one thing at a time.  So, how do we determine what thing we are to work on?  Unfortunately, often times, work is determined when people come to us.  We hear a customer or colleague’s problem as, “Why aren’t you fixing my problem?”  With empathy, we help and sometimes move their problem to the top of our priority list.

Here’s the thing:  We may have this magic ability to help our customers, partners, and co-workers solve their problems, but we can’t solve them all at once. This is why prioritization matters.

The scenario above may seem like there’s no real system being used, but it does fall into one prioritization system.  Albeit, a reactive one.  It’s the “Squeaky Wheel” system.  But as it’s been said, “If you take what the world throws at you, that puts you up on your heels.”

The best prioritization systems, however, are proactive… not reactive.  A proactive system allows you to be aggressive toward your goals and make deliberate choices. Ultimately, you’ll end up with better outcomes when the decisions you make are intentional and done to further your goals.

Ultimately, the type of proactive prioritization system you choose doesn’t matter. Or rather, the right one for one company might not be the right one for another company.  But buy-in matters. All different types of stakeholders should have a voice in finding the right prioritization system. Even if they’re not ultimately leading the effort or are responsible for decisions being made, being a part of the process can help you make sure that once a system is established, it actually gets used.

Oftentimes, proactive prioritization systems are chosen based on internal factors at play:

Key resources:  Funding, Hiring, and other internal needs

Strategic alignment:  There’s an overall, overarching goal that each team rallies around

Regardless, so long as you know your goals, can present all of your possible prioritization strategies, customize the right one for your business as a team, and begin prioritizing together… you’ll be way ahead of when the “squeaky wheel” determines your roadmap.

To view Jenny’s full presentation, visit:

Paul McAvinchey

About the author

For over 20 years, Paul has been building and collaborating on digital products with fast-growing startups and global brands, including AOL and WMS Gaming. Currently, he's a co-founder of Product Collective, a worldwide community of product people. Members collaborate on in the exclusive Member Hub, meet at INDUSTRY: The Product Conference, listen to, learn at Product Interviews and get a weekly newsletters that includes best practices in product management. In recent years he led business development at DXY, a leading product design firm in the Midwest, and product innovation at MedCity Media, a publishing startup acquired by Breaking Media in 2015.


You may also like