Stop greasing these 3 squeaky wheels

by  Leigh Steere  |  Career Development

“A ‘squeaky wheel’ isn’t the highest priority project. It’s the loudest or most noticed. In many organizations, it gets the grease, while projects with greatest potential to bring about business results get delayed or set aside.”

This quote comes from the book Everything’s A Project, which I reviewed in a recent post. And it’s playing like a mantra in my thoughts.

We focus on squeaky wheels because they are irritating, not because they are important. We want the irritation to go away.

Here are three different types of squeaky wheels that can derail a business, along with thoughts on how to eliminate the noise:

1. A “side” project with a strident cheerleader

This project is someone’s beloved pet. The advocate is passionate about it to the point of being blinded. Higher priorities are calling for your time, attention, and resources. As a leader, it’s your job to make sure employees are focused on the most important goals. Good leaders redirect the cheerleader’s enthusiasm into the highest priority activities without cutting down the person or his/her original passion. Some forward-thinking companies let employees spend up to 20 percent of their time on side endeavors. This gives workers a creative outlet, lets them recharge, and helps them feel supported, so they can give you 100 percent of their focus and energy when it’s time to work on mission-critical tasks.

2. “Noisy” customers

They want you to jump at their beck and call. They want their deliverables yesterday, instead of giving you reasonable lead time. They nit-pick each invoice and insist all their suppliers accept 90-day payment terms (instead of reimbursing more promptly). And though they squawk a lot and suck away your energy, they account for a very small fraction of your company’s income. Your balance sheet wouldn’t really suffer if they stopped purchasing from you. Fire them, and plan a celebration with your staff.

3. High maintenance employees

These come in many varieties. Here are some symptoms: you spend a disproportionate amount of your time giving them step-by-step instructions on how to complete tasks, because they can’t seem to look up information on their own. Or you spend half your day behind a closed door listening to complaints either from or about the high-maintenance employee. Or the worker seems to be at the center of every conflict or drama in your department. You’ve provided performance feedback, but the employee keeps delivering the same set of mistakes or poor behaviors. If you’ve imparted the “shape up or ship out” message, make sure you follow up on the “ship out” part. If you haven’t yet confronted the employee, what’s your excuse? Here are 13 bad ones.

Greasing a squeaky wheel may provide temporary relief, but it doesn’t cure a headache. Take the long view. Is the project, customer or employee good for your business—or simply sapping your resources?

About The Author

Articles By leigh-steere
Leigh Steere is a researcher, product developer, and adviser in the field of people management. She writes on fostering creativity, employee engagement, and high performance in the workplace. Visit http://www.managingpeoplebetter.com/mpb/index.html for a free assessment of your management style and tips for managing more effectively.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Deborah Costello  |  24 Feb 2012  |  Reply

Wow! It seems like I spend ALL my time dealing with these 3 wheels! I love the idea of 80/20 in particular, letting people spend 20% of their time on pet projects. As for the noisy customer (in my case parents) it’s really hard to turn that off. I also know that 90% of employee issues are caused by 10% of employees. It’s a tricky balancing act, one I continue to work on…

Thanks for the thoughtful post.

Peter Borner  |  24 Feb 2012  |  Reply

You can’t help but smile. This post rings so true that I doubt anyone could say that they have never experienced any of these issues. We have strategies to deal with each one and they are working for us. Pet projects are straightforward. We allow employees time for their own research and experimentation but we own the IPR if they come up with something cool. We deal with noisy customers by proactively managing projects through agile sprints and pay attention to ensuring we are transparent and communicate thoroughly. We tackle noisy employees through our recruitment process. We spend time making sure potential employees fit our values and culture. We call it “the four behaviours” and we work to ensure a good fit. In that way we avoid the noisy employee problem. If we make a mistake we deal with the issue head on but we have found that our culture is self healing so the odd balls are usually squeezed out by the rest of the team.

I look forward to reading your next post.


Brent Sprinkle  |  24 Feb 2012  |  Reply

Great points Leigh.
The side projects can be useful/productive, they just need to be managed correctly. I recently read an article from a Google engineer about how their 20% free time works (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/21/jobs/21pre.html) – seems like a great concept.

As for noisy customers, we have an EOS client who, every year, develops their dirty dozen list – their bottom twelve customers, and then develops a plan to either turn them into model clients or get rid of them. Typically 80% of revenue is from the top 20% of your customers anyway. Life’s too short…

And I have a quick test for squeaky employees (actually all employees) – ask yourself three questions about them relative to their job/seat – do they Get it? do they Want it? and do they have the Capacity to do it? (aka GWC). If the answer to any of the three questions is no, you got the wrong person in the seat. Sometimes you can overcome the capacity issue, but if they don’t get it, or don’t want it – you need to make move.
Thanks again for the insightful post!

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