2020 was the year of dependencies. Some healthy — weekly Zoom calls with loved ones — and some less so. I’m talking to you, pint of Ben and Jerry’s.

In a project, dependency management is crucial to success.

Consider a cake making factory.

If you don’t get a grip on your dependencies, your cake will be ready for decorating and you’ll realize you’ve forgotten to make the icing. Having to wait while the icing is made takes time, slows down production, and, ultimately, costs money.

In this article, we’ll explain what dependencies management is and share a few tips and tools to keep everything on track.

Get started with monday.com

What are the different types of dependencies?

Before we start, a quick note on constraints. A constraint is a limit within which a task has to be completed. The classic constraints in project management are scope, time, and budget.

Constraints can give rise to dependencies and dependencies might result in constraints, but they’re not the same thing.

For example, say I need to build a house and, to meet the client’s expectations, I have to complete it within 7 days.

Roofing the house is dependent on first building the walls. If it takes 5 days to build the walls, then roofing the house must be completed within 2 days. This is a constraint that’s come about because of the duration of the task on which it is dependent.

There are 3 main types of dependencies:

  • Causal or logical dependencies. These are dependencies which can’t be started without completion of a previous step. So, if we consider our house-building analogy, painting the walls has a causal dependency on building them.
  • Resource-based dependencies. Resource-based dependencies mean tasks have to follow each other because they are constrained by resource availability not, necessarily, because they are causal.For instance, you could build all 4 walls at once but you only have enough people — resources — to do 1 at a time, so you need to finish the 1st one before you start the next.

Resource-based dependencies may be an area in the project where the constraint changes during the project.

For example, if, initially, resource was constrained by budget but it’s critical the project finishes on time and is currently behind schedule, investing in extra resource may mean tasks can be completed in parallel, hence shortening the overall timeline.

  • Preferential. These are dependencies that may be added to the project schedule to focus on the quality of the deliverable. They aren’t mandatory but, instead, are the result of best practice or convention.

Note: Causal dependencies are part of a wider group of dependencies called task dependencies. Tasks that cannot start before the preceding tasks have been completed are the most common type. This type of task dependency is called ‘Finish to Start’.

However, you can also have ‘Finish to Finish’, ‘Start to Start’ and ‘Start to Finish’ task dependencies. For more on these, check out our article on task dependencies.

It’s important to note that you’ll likely have some dependencies that are within your control — for example, the sequencing of tasks within the project. An internal dependency is a task that is dependent on other tasks within the same project.

External dependencies, however, are project dependencies outside the control of the project team. These could include project inputs being completed by another department or project team within the company or even activities being completed externally to the company.

In our house-building example, this might be gaining approval from building regulators that the foundations are sound before the walls can be built.

Why do dependencies need managing?

In a nutshell, managing your dependencies is all about managing project risk. 71% of organizations fail to ‘always or mostly’ complete their projects on time.

Identifying your project’s dependencies is key to accurately estimating your project’s duration.

Using the critical path method you can identify the string of dependent tasks that takes the longest time to complete. This is the expected overall duration of the project.

Accurately estimating the overall project duration is important so you can manage the expectations of stakeholders who want the job done yesterday when, in reality, you know it’ll be done in a month of Sundays.

Knowing your project’s timeline and the expected start and finish of individual tasks is crucial for effective resource management.

screenshot showing resources assigned to project tasks and task duration

Even if resource availability isn’t a constraint having people sitting around twiddling their thumbs while they wait for another task to complete isn’t a particularly good use of time or money.

And there’s nothing more frustrating than working hard at a dependent task only to find there isn’t the resource available to move it on to the next stage.

Being able to report to stakeholders that the project is on track to deliver on time builds confidence. This is crucial if release of funding for the next project stage is dependent on the successful completion of the previous stage.

Identifying preferential dependencies can result in higher quality deliverables which is important if there are strict acceptance criteria.

Finally, it’s worth considering that your project might be a dependency in someone else’s. Failing to complete your project on time could have a knock-on effect on projects downstream, further compounding the problem.

Get started

How tools can help manage dependencies

The first step in identifying dependencies is to break large tasks into smaller ones. As this gets more complex, using a work breakdown structure (WBS) template, like this one from monday.com, can help keep everything organized.

Project WBS template from monday.com

Once you’ve outlined your WBS, it’s easier to see how tasks should be ordered. At this stage, holding a dependencies workshop with business stakeholders is critical for understanding how tasks relate to each other.

Using a visual tool, such as a Kanban board or Gantt chart, can really help people understand the parts of the project and more easily identify how they rely on each other.

A digital Kanban board makes it simple to compile and reorder tasks and means you’re not frantically trying to juggle a million Post-it notes.

With this information you can start to build your project schedule showing tasks, key milestones, dependencies and the expected date of the task start and finish.

Here’s how it might look in monday.com:

screenshot of project plan showing tasks and their dependencies

The project schedule is critical for monitoring progress against the overall duration allowing early warning of any potential delays.

Information from resource allocation planning can be integrated to ensure you always have a resource available when you need it.

Finally, it’s crucial to capture dependencies that are out of the control of the project team in the project risk register.

It can be frustrating if an external dependency creates delays and making sure that the possibility is flagged to stakeholders is important.

It means they can take decisions on building flexibility into the project schedule and gives them confidence that the project team is doing its best to manage all the variables.

How managing dependencies lowers project risk

In this article we’ve explained what dependencies are and why effectively managing them is critical for delivering your project on time and on budget.

Dependencies, by their nature, bring additional risk to your project so it’s important to identify and control them where possible.

After all, out of control dependencies — still looking at you Cherry Garcia — are so 2020.

If dependencies are outside the control of the project, make sure they’re flagged on the risk register and monitor them closely. We’ve got a great project risk register to get you started.

Get started