Feeling Stuck Roadmap for Breaking out of Your Funk

Even the most agile team can sometimes feel, well, stuck – idling in neutral, low on motivation, unsure where to go or what to do next. At times like this, it’s important to take stock of where you are and re-double efforts to improve incrementally. In this post, Curtis Hibbs identifies some common project “sticking points” and outlines a roadmap for getting unstuck.

Written by Curtis Hibbs, Agile Thought Leader | PMI • 15 March 2024

Feeling Stuck Roadmap for Breaking out of Your Funk

Google the expression “getting stuck” and you’ll discover a trove of information about the psychological state of stagnation – the feeling that you’re trapped in a downward spiral and powerless to change what you do or how you do it. It turns out that the lowly idea of “getting stuck” is a very real thing in psychology.

I’m here today to tell you that getting stuck is a very real thing in project management too. From time to time, we all get that sense of “stuckness” – the feeling that work has bogged down, goals are uncertain, and we have no idea what to do next.

Why We Get Stuck

Getting stuck can happen at virtually any point on a project. Sometimes it occurs right at the beginning – when we’re trying to figure out overall goals and objectives. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. There’s so much data to take in, so many stakeholders to consult, and so many requirements to consider, that you don’t know where to begin. You have “analysis paralysis.”

Or, you might be well along on a project and suddenly have to tackle a really big, really difficult, or really complex task – something that involves lots of people, lots of teams, and lots of permissions. You try to do everything at once – to “boil the ocean” – only to find you’re flailing instead.

Sometimes getting stuck is a matter of communications or, rather, a failure of communications – especially between executive sponsors and project teams. I call this the “Tower of Babel” effect because it can sometimes seem that project and executive teams speak entirely different languages. And if things are going poorly, it can often lead to finger-pointing and accusations that all problems are the other team’s fault.

Finally, there’s the issue of frameworks and tools. On occasion, we can get so caught up in identifying the right tool for a particular task that we put off the work itself. Or, we might be handed a particular off-the-shelf framework to work with only to find it doesn’t really fit the project’s requirements. Or, we might be asked to measure the success of a project by assessing how well we’ve implemented the framework – a good example of circular reasoning. It’s the “tail wagging the dog” effect.

How to Get Unstuck in Three Steps
So how do you break free of these dilemmas? How do you go about getting unstuck?

Regardless of where you are on your journey – and whether you’re operating in predictive, agile, or hybrid mode – the mantra within the Disciplined Agile (DA) community is always to start where you are and improve incrementally. This graphic illustrating the DA implementation approach may help.

Feeling Stuck Roadmap for Breaking out of Your Funk

The steps outlined here can be applied at any point to address any of the sticking points outlined above. Let me walk you through the steps:

In Step 1, leadership needs to decide what it wants to accomplish. This is the time to work closely with the executive team to ensure you’re speaking the same language and capturing the project’s objectives and desired outcomes clearly and succinctly.

This critical consultation normally takes place at the start of a project. But it can also occur later – especially if circumstances have changed or if you learn something over the course of the project that suggests a course correction.

Step 2 involves bringing all relevant stakeholders together for a facilitated conversation about the agreed-upon outcomes – including what’s standing in the way of achieving those outcomes, and what actions can be taken to overcome these obstacles.

The output of this workshop is a prioritized list of actions that the project team will execute against. The list doesn’t need to be complete, and the prioritization doesn’t have to be 100 percent correct. The important thing is for the team to design its way of working and to create an initial change plan.

Step 3 is simply to “work the plan.” To do so, however, it’s critical to establish clear lines of responsibility. Someone needs to be in charge – even if leadership is shared on a rotating basis. At any given point, however, someone must be tracking the work and ensuring a consistent operating rhythm.

The final sub-bullet under Step 3 is also key. Throughout the project, feedback from the team and, more important, from key stakeholders should be used to revise the change plan. At the simplest level, this can mean simply adding items to the backlog of changes to be made. If you’re really stuck, however, it might mean holding another stakeholder workshop to revisit requirements and ways of working.

Breaking Free with an Agile Mindset
This three-step process can help you out of pretty much any “state of stuckness” you might find yourself in:

  • Suffering from analysis paralysis? Make sure project objectives and desired outcomes are clearly stated, and work with your stakeholders to gather further user requirements. Capture these requirements incrementally. You don’t want to get bogged down creating a “kitchen sink” document that takes months to put together.
  • Feel the need to boil the ocean? There’s usually a way to break big, hairy tasks down into smaller components. Start with something small – even if it’s just to get moving. The important thing is always to do something.
  • Run into a Tower of Babel situation? This is why it’s so important to build business acumen (the third side of PMI’s Talent Triangle) – to ensure your team and the executive team understand each other. It may be time to return to Step 1 and have a follow-up discussion of objectives and desired outcomes.
  • Feel like your tools and framework are “wagging the dog?” Don’t let a particular tool or framework become a crutch – a distraction from making genuine progress. What’s important is working with stakeholders to gain clarity around requirements and to obtain essential user feedback.

So often, a sense of “stuckness” comes about because we view our choices as permanent – as if we can never change our minds. Avoid getting locked into this mindset. True business agility – whether at the enterprise, value stream or team level – is about remaining open to new learnings and to adjusting our plans accordingly. The value of an agile mindset is not in avoiding getting stuck; it’s in having the flexibility and the confidence to change direction as new realities dictate.



Curtis Hibbs
Agile Thought Leader | PMI

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