When You're in Chaos, Try Baby Steps

About a month ago, I spoke with a project manager who'd inherited a project in chaos. No one was making progress. He was stumped–he'd never worked on a project where the developers couldn't do anything, the testers couldn't do anything, and time was just slipping away.

I suggested he try baby steps. What's the first thing the project needs to deliver? Just focus on one small thing. He did have an answer, but the feature was large. He thought it would take 2-3 weeks to deliver it, coded as well as tested.

Since he knew what the team needed to do, he could use timeboxes to focus people's attention on that work. I suggested he use one-week timeboxes, to make sure people figured out what they needed to do, just for the first week, and that the project team work together to make sure they were all working towards the same goal. Once he got the first week working, he could do the same thing for the second and third weeks.

The reason one-week timeboxes work to focus people is that when a project is in chaos, people tend to be in chaos too. They get easily distracted. A timebox, especially a short timebox is really good for helping people make progress and breathe.

He had never done week-by-week planning, so I suggested yellow sticky scheduling, focusing on the deliverables that would finish the feature. It's not a hard concept, so he was able to do it.

I caught up with him last week, and sure enough the timeboxes along with focusing on one feature at a time worked. He and the team were able to show progress, which bought them a slight decrease in pressure from the their senior management team. Now, he and the team could choose how to proceed.

I suggested he continue with the timeboxes and incremental approach to the project, to make sure people stayed focused and didn't drift into chaos.

“But timeboxes seem like such baby steps. Do I really need to stick with the baby steps?”

No, he doesn't have to. But there's no reason to think that the people won't go back into chaos as soon as they remove the focus of the timeboxes. And if he stops implementing by feature, they will revert to no progress.

I'm sure there are other solutions to the not making progress problem. But if an entire project is stuck, try small baby steps to bring some focus and progress back to the project.

4 Replies to “When You're in Chaos, Try Baby Steps”

  1. I think some project managers think the one-week timebox approach is too much work. It is definitely a high-energy approach that requires the ability to re-focus at will, but I don’t think the overhead is as high as many people believe. It’s certainly less effort than plan management based on comprehensive upfront planning.
    It’s easy to see the time-box approach as a stop-gap measure, something you do “to get the project back on track.” They might be uncomfortable with the approach because it can lead to micro-management, but I don’t think that’s a reason to give up on timeboxing. Instead, PM’s would be well-suited to accept regular time-boxing as a way of life and then develop skills that help them avoid micro-management or other self-defeating behaviors.

  2. I would add that when progress seems to have stopped, it’s important to have absolutely unambigous goals. I remember a former manager who asked us all “Which things are 100% done and which are not?” We’d gotten bogged down with lots of “nearly complete” tasks. The baby step approach probably automatically defines unambiguous goals. Some of the benefit may come from the clarity of the goal as well as its small size.

  3. This actually reminds me of a Gantt Chart. It’s the chart we use for our thesis-writing process. We need to follow each month’s schedule properly or else we’ll get sidetracked and be delayed. If I’m not mistaken, the schedule is divided into weeks as well.

  4. This is an excellent approach to address this specific problem, one which I use myself and recommend to clients as well. I find that apart from focusing the team it allows me to track progress using activities short enough to allow me to use the ‘done/not done’ approach. It means that I don’t get stuck in the never-ending ‘90% complete’ rut and my progress reports are based on real metrics (number of tasks completed vs number of tasks remaining to complete a feature – combined with task complexity and team velocity) and not the team members’ perceptions of what complete means. Great post Johanna!

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