When complacency creeps in—A story by Holly Davis

Holly Davis, Principal Delivery Lead at Torchbox

Last week, Operations Director at DDB Sydney, Steph Dix, shared her (all-too-familiar) story about work-life balance and how exactly her mantra, “happy people make for great work,” came to be.

This week, Holly Davis, Principal Delivery Manager at Torchbox, talks about complacency, ownership, and project scope.

You can read all the stories in our latest eBook, Confessions of a Project Manager. Download your free copy here.


I was working with a competent Lead Developer on one of our biggest clients delivering a rebuild for a platform that we’d been working on for 10+ years. Our Technical Director had executed some high-level planning of how big the migration project was and how much it’d cost to rebuild their platform.

We had broken this massive project into many mini projects, taking one section of the site at a time.

Then the pandemic hit.

This client was affected particularly badly so we discussed putting the project on pause. We agreed, not knowing at that point quite how long we were going to pause for. 

Fast forward almost two years later, we were given the go-ahead to move forward with the project again. During that time, the Techncial Director and Lead Developer had both moved on. We had another Lead Developer who had been working on the site since the very start, so fortunately the project had some continuity.

So, some team changes! That’s just agency world, right? Right! Not thinking much more of it, we started delivering tickets again. 

False sense of progress

A couple of projects in, we were struggling to build momentum. New developers were struggling to get onboarded, sprint velocity wasn’t great, we had the whole JIRA tennis situation going on where tickets kept getting pinged back. Tickets that looked “done” weren’t anywhere close giving us a false sense of progress. 

To be frank, it was a mess.

I had the sense that we were experiencing some tech debt and a bit of a rocky onboarding, but in a couple of sprints everyone would get into their groove and we’d be alright. So over the course of the next few sprints, we were tracking slightly behind but not drastically. I felt like things were improving, however, every time I spoke to the Lead Developer, I could tell he didn’t share my confidence. When I dug deeper, he told me the budget wasn’t realistic and he didn’t have confidence in the approach. 

I heard him. But without any revised estimates or proposed plan, I felt stuck. So we soldiered on once again, but as you can imagine, at this point there were red flags everywhere.

I was also this person’s line manager, and it was actually during a 1:1 I could see how much this project was affecting him. He was visibly de-motivated and he had a lot to prove on this project. The previous Lead Developer was very well respected and he felt he had big shoes to fill. I could see how disheartened he was feeling about the project—he was drowning. 

I can’t remember exactly what I said in that meeting, but it was along the lines of, “from now on we’re going to treat this like it’s a new project (not one you’ve inherited), I have complete trust in you. Let me know how you’d like to run this project and come to me with a revised budget. It doesn’t need to be exact, but it needs to be detailed enough where I can have a conversation with the client.”

From tech problem to team problem

I kept checking in on how he was getting on and the answer was always vague, “yes, I’m getting there.” In the coming weeks, he revealed a mammoth spreadsheet. Not quite user story level, but a list of epics and components with the initial sizing and a revised sizing. I was half listening and half trying to work out how big the difference was in cost. 

This wasn’t the type of conversation where you’re asking the client for a “bit of extra budget” for 1-2 sprints. It was an eye-watering amount, almost a quarter of the budget again.

I remained calm on the exterior and thanked him for all his hard work—but inside I was freaking out. How have we only just got to this point? Why didn’t I stop the project earlier? Why didn’t we do this at the start?

Sure, those were good questions to ask. But not right now. Right now we needed to focus on an action plan. As this went from tech problem to team problem, ironically, this was the first time we came together as a multi-disciplinary team.

We did some amazing work in that time. We questioned and challenged ourselves. We re-used and re-reviewed analytics which hadn’t been re-done since the project was started. Ultimately, we came up with revised approaches where we could cut the costs, but deliver a similar outcome. 

I remember working on a script before the call with the client on which I was going to deliver the news. (Needless to say, I had a bit of a sleepless night before presenting the client with this big deficit in budget.)

To this day I don’t know how the client was as understanding as they were. My guess in retrospect was that they too didn’t have faith in the plan or the estimates. It was probably a relief to see a spreadsheet that articulated the actual size of the project in a way that they could engage with and understand.

Now, this story does have a relatively happy ending! We agreed on a revised plan where we’d postpone delivering some of the work to the following financial year, we de-prioritized some low-value features, found efficiencies, and undertook some work pro bono to make amends. With a revised plan that the whole team could buy into and with a renewed sense of “team” and purpose, we were back on our way.

Lesson learned: Every project needs ownership

So what’s the point of the story? At this point in my career, I was in the most senior delivery role I had been in and complacency had crept in. I didn’t take a moment to think about what had changed or to ensure the team we were bought into the plan we had inherited. There was a lack of ownership.

Hopefully, another pandemic isn’t around the corner, but where you encounter team changes, projects pausing, or your team have inherited a budget or approach they don’t believe in or feel they can’t deliver on here’s what to do: stop, assess the situation, and most importantly—take (or assign) ownership.

Does this story resonate with you?

Discover more in our eBook, Confessions of a Project Manager, where PM practitioners, authors, and agency insiders share the stories that defined their careers—and the lessons they learned along the way.

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Download the eBook, Confessions of a Project Manager

Meet Holly Davis

Holly Davis has been actively contributing to the delivery management community since 2014 when she co-founded DO PM, a meetup for delivery folk based in Oxford, out of that spun out the digital delivery Slack channel which has over 500 delivery/project managers who share knowledge and best practice. She regularly writes on topics of delivery management and team leadership and has been featured on a number of industry-recognized blogs and podcasts. She provides mentorship to nurture tomorrow’s delivery leaders and is currently working as a Principal Delivery Manager at Torchbox, an agency partner for socially progressive organizations. 

Connect with Holly on LinkedIn.