Agile project management has been developed as a more flexible and efficient way to manage a project by breaking it up into several phases. It involves constant collaboration between team members and project stakeholders, with continuous improvement the aim at every stage. Once the project begins – depending on its size and complexity – the team or teams cycle through a process of planning, executing, and evaluating, in which work in nearly all tasks depends on work conducted in other tasks. These are called dependencies. Managing project dependencies is vital for successful completion of the work.
A dependency in a project is a task, event or situation that depends on the completion of a previous task or upon which a task is dependent. Often a dependency may be unavoidable. However, when left unmanaged, dependencies can disrupt the workflow and negatively impact the team’s productivity. Four common types of dependencies are shown in the image below:
Current global dependency problem
A classic worldwide dependency problem is the current computer chip shortage, which is predicted to last until 2123. Product manufacturing in many industries has suffered severe supply chain shortages since 2020 due to the lack of available computer chips, which are essential for their products. Such industries range from auto manufacturing to the production of household items like microwave ovens, refrigerators, washing machines and video doorbells, to computers, smartphones, gaming consoles, and even children’s toys. Examples: Shortly after it was released, Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro came with up to three weeks waiting time, and domestic appliance manufacturer Electrolux said its supply chain was strained in many areas. The problem is even worse for customers who buy in bulk. For instance, many companies buy new staff computers in bulk.
Production of all these items depends on the ready availability of computer chips to enable completion of the production process, especially when many companies maintain short lead times as part of agile project management. Reducing purchase and delivery lead times can streamline operations and improve productivity, increasing output, and revenue. By contrast, longer lead times negatively affect sales and manufacturing processes. Factors that can lengthen lead times include lack of raw materials, breakdown of transportation, labor shortages, natural disasters, and human errors. Lots of potential dependency issues here! You can see from this example how managing project dependencies is such a crucial task.
Dependencies are everywhere in business
Dependencies can be as simple as having to wait for:
- a departmental manager to arrive before a meeting can start
- production and media booking of a major advertising campaign to promote a new international product launch
- all arrangements to be completed for a planned tour around its regional offices by the new CEO of a large company
- public company annual report production, such as completion date to table and distribution to stock exchange and shareholders before annual general meeting; key themes and messages; writing time required; budgeting; graphic design; content, eg photography, digital and online format; interviewing executives and financial management; progress reports; approvals; distribution deadlines; etc.
- completion of packaging process before products can be distributed
- raw materials to be delivered for the construction of a commercial warehouse.
Dependencies are present in all projects. If not properly managed, this can result in work inefficiency, overflowing backlogs, and unmet deadlines. Therefore you need to have effective dependencies management strategies.
Decide which task dependencies will apply within a project
When planning a project, it is essential to work out which tasks depend on each other. As project manager, you should:
- Decide the sequences of tasks in the project plan.
- Calculate the critical path for each task, ie when each task should start and its expected duration.
- Identify the resources needed to complete the tasks, and when they will be needed.
- Monitor and manage the tasks in the project.
- Identify and follow up opportunities to speed up completion of each task.
How to manage task dependencies in projects
Here are 5 tips to help you manage task dependencies in projects:
1. Identify potential dependencies
First, you need to identify all potential dependencies in your project before establishing a workflow. If you do this after the workflow has been finalized, you might find yourself challenging or questioning the sequence of steps, and thus creating dependencies. This can increase the risk of unnecessary delays or complications.
Hold a team meeting or workshop for all team members and representatives from other departments to discuss how their project tasks affect each other, and find anything that could hold them back. Such reviews should be conducted regularly to ensure coordination is maintained continuously with other relevant teams.
In addition, you should schedule regular meetings to identify any dependencies at every stage, especially when there are unexpected changes to the process. Viewing a project plan on a whiteboard in these weekly or daily meetings can help you visualize the actual flow of work, and anticipate where some tasks may get stuck. Gantt charts and PERT charts are also extremely valuable for identifying and assessing dependencies.
2. Organize and stack tasks
After identifying potential dependencies in the project, you need to organize and connect each task, by name, to other tasks that depend on it or vice versa. This will create a clear stream of task prerequisites, which will help your team members to keep order in place and ensure all tasks are finished in a steady flow.
Now, whether you’re using a physical management board, a type of Kanban board or a Gantt/PERT chart on a spreadsheet, you need to stack the dependent tasks above each other in the order they should be finished. At the top of the list should be the first tasks to be completed and everything following should be in a subsequent order.
3. Improve communication
Good communication is a must. Project management experts believe communication is the most important reason why projects fail. In fact, Dow & Taylor in their 807-page book, Project Management Communications (2008), p. xxix, state that “Communication problems = 90% of why projects fail.” And they quote a common saying: “Project communication is the most important aspect of managing a project.”
More recently, the Australian Institute of Project Management stated that “the majority of respondents who took part in AIPM’s 2021 Membership Survey listed stakeholder management, communication and leadership as the top skills required to be a project manager today.” Good communication is at the core of all these skills. Project managers need to interact with all the people involved in the project to be able to manage the workflow efficiently. In general, there are key categories of stakeholders who project managers deal with:
Project team. Managers should ensure every team member understands their tasks and responsibilities and how they relate to the other tasks. Daily interactions with team members can help identify and resolve any emerging-problem dependencies early on, and so problems are recognized before they can disrupt workflow. Preferred types of communication are face-to-face communication, minutes of meetings, project plan and next phase plan, email and instant messaging, and videoconferencing.
Major internal stakeholders. Project managers and relevant team members should regularly engage with company executives and other significant internal stakeholders, ensuring they understand how dependencies may affect the project’s progress. Preferred types of communication to these stakeholders are business cases, regular reports, exception reports and face-to-face presentations. For significant projects, regular contact with the head of corporate communication is also important for deciding the most appropriate communication to other employees at all levels and locations to keep them in the loop and to quell any potential rumors of project problems.
Customers, suppliers and contractors. Preferred types of communication to these stakeholders are a statement of work, contracts, project newsletter and communication plan. These contacts to be made after consultation with senior management, depending on the size and nature of the project, and type of stakeholder.
Other external stakeholders. Depending on the size and type of project, external stakeholders could include business leaders, community leaders, financial markets, government regulators and utilities, shareholders, neighboring residents and businesses. News media and social media are also considerations when communicating about major project progress and dependencies.
4. Record and monitor key details
Track and make a record of each task dependency. Aside from showing you the project’s progress, it can also help in your future reports and analysis. For starters, you’ll want to track these:
- Lead time: The period a task takes to travel across the entire project board, or from start to finish.
- Throughput: The number of project items completed in each given period.
- Blockers: A setback, problem, or dependency.
- Total WIP (Work In Progress): All tasks that have been started but not yet completed.
Now, within the dependency itself, you should record these details:
- Unique ID or name
- What or who depends on it
- When it should be delivered
- What should be delivered
- The teams or persons the relevant tasks are assigned to.
Recording all these data can help you adjust your plans and schedules as needed. It’ll also reduce risks and help to improve dependency management.
5. Remove single accountability
The project team should be seen as a complete project management system with every team member accountable as a part of a whole.
Every task should be assigned to a specific team member. However, you should avoid managing tasks on a per-person basis. Instead, approach each person and their task as a part of the team they’re in.
When you remove the individual accountabilities and implement team accountability instead, you’re fostering a collaborative environment where everyone’s encouraged to be responsible. It also emphasizes that the team is working as a unit where members help each other to move the project forward.
Dependencies can be a problem to the smooth progress of a project, especially when they markedly disrupt the project team’s workflow. However, these tips should help to successfully manage and control any adverse effects that dependencies may cause to the project’s development.