At the top level you have three options;
1. Quit and go work somewhere less chaotic,
2. Step in and be guided by the people and procsses already in play, and
3. Put aside the day to day busy work and address the key problems.
Let's presume you pick option 3.
I've written about this in the past and my opinion remains the same; the thing to do when you join a project - where the wheels are spinning but nobody's moving - is to start with risk management.
Basically the project risk management framework puts a structure in place for you to identify risks to the project (particularly time, budget and scope) and to get people to help you tackle them. Especially your sponsor and steering committees.
It works because it is structured and formal and makes the people around you accountable for doing the right thing, rather than just what they were planning to do. It's also a good way to zero in on the critical items that are not urgent but are lurking around the corner - and need to be tackled.
That's the strategy, but in some places it's hard to find the time to deploy it.
So four more suggestions;
1. Get help.
Pick someone in your team and enlist them in your risk management mission. They do the paperwork and organise meetings. You do the leading, motivating and investigating to help get things moving along.
2. Don't be afraid to put other things aside.
There is often scope to drop administrative tasks such as weekly reports, meetings with team members or non critical stakehodlers. Think about whether meeting with these popel is substantially contributing to your project's goals or is just taking up yor time. Delegate or cancel. You have more important things to do.
3. Force a rhythm.
If your team are busy but not focused, and if the same applies to you, a quick way of getting things structured enough to give you breating room is to set a rhythm to your teams work. Pay attention to the natual rhythm of the project and organisation and set your cycle of events to match that. Make one of your regular events the risk management activities.
4. Don't sweat lost time
Often people are scambling to meet missed milestones. They'll never recover. Better to admit the slippage and focus on regaining control. Otherwise you'll just keep spinning those wheels in the sand.
Anyone else got ideas?