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.