End Squeaky Wheel Syndrome by Changing How You Prioritize in Product Management

Jenny Wanger, Senior Product Manager at SpotHero

Many people decide what to build next using the “squeaky wheel” prioritization method, where the person screaming the loudest gets their way. This session will not tell you the one true way to prioritize what you do next. Instead, we will focus on the basic principles of prioritization: customer needs, business outcomes, and available resources. Through some interactive exercises, we’ll look at a few of the most popular prioritization frameworks and examples of how they’re used in companies around the globe.


  • We’re all bound by the space-time continuum. We only have 24 hours in a day, we can’t be in two places at once, and we can only work on one thing at a time.
  • Determine what people actually want when they come to you (“Why aren’t you fixing my problem?”). Have empathy for them.
  • We 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.
  • We all already use a prioritization system. Most are reactive (squeaky wheels). “If you take what the world throws at you, that puts you up on your heels.”
  • Have a proactive system that allows you to be aggressive toward your goals and make deliberate choices. You’ll have better outcomes.
  • The prioritization system you choose doesn’t matter. Buy-in matters. This gives people a voice in your model. They’re not leading it — just providing insight.
  • Which of these is leading your team?
    • Resources — Funding, hiring, and other internal needs.
    • Strategic alignment — There’s an overall goal, and teams have their own.
    • Business outcomes — Revenue targets. Increase conversion. KPI-driven.
    • Customer needs — All we want to do is get users.
  • Bottom line:1) know your goals, 2) present your options, 3) customize together, and 4) prioritize together.

“I’ve attempted to introduce prioritization in the past and had mixed success. Most recently, we’ve come to a more consistent way of coming to an understanding of company goals and let that prioritize things. It works well. We have a very solid reason that’s based on company goals as to why we can’t do their thing today. It definitely reduces the stress of having to tell people ‘no.’ In the past, when I’ve tried this and it hasn’t worked, we came up with the strategy internally and didn’t get a good job getting buy-in. This new company alignment has been really good and mapped closely to what she talked about.”

“She talked about empathy. That allows us to say ‘we wanted to do that too, but we can’t.’ It puts you in a position where you’re not the only one saying ‘no.’ It turns it from an argument into a more strategic way to get to a goal. We all end up on the same side instead of being the gatekeeper. When something new comes up, we can ask, ‘Is it more important?’”

Paul McAvinchey
Paul McAvinchey

For over 15 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 Slack, meet at INDUSTRY: The Product Conference, listen to Rocketship.fm, learn at Product Interviews and get a weekly brief 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.