Dependencies: What They Are and How They Affect Project Management

A stack of toppling books stopped by a bookend, representing dependencies in project management

Imagine that you’re part of a complicated project. It has many moving pieces and collaborators scattered throughout multiple teams. It’s just one of the many things you’re working on, and there’s a big task in it that’s been looming over you all week. But you get a fresh cup of coffee, crack your knuckles, and sit down to start working on it. Only to find out that you can’t start. Maybe you’re missing work from someone else, or another task that you’re waiting on hasn’t even been started. You’ve just run into the first of your project’s many dependencies.

An unexpected dependency can bring a project to a grinding halt. But don’t worry. Here’s our guide to dependencies, their different forms, and what you can do to manage them.

What are dependencies?

In project management, dependencies are relationships between multiple tasks. Surfacing a dependency between two tasks is a way of communicating that the completion of one task relies on the other. By identifying dependencies early, you can be sure that no one on your team is stuck holding the bag because someone else didn’t realize their work had slowed your whole project to a crawl.

Think about it this way. Imagine that your project is building a birdhouse. Your project has multiple tasks, like acquiring building supplies, gathering your tools, putting the house together, and painting it. In this project, each task depends on the others before it. Can you paint your birdhouse before it’s built? Can you build it without supplies?

Seems obvious? Well, remember that the dependencies in this example are all just one type. There are actually multiple categories of dependencies. Knowing them can make the difference between crushing a project and despairing over a bunch of incomplete tasks at 5:30 on a Friday.

The different types of dependencies

Dependencies link a pair of tasks when one can’t progress without the other. But that exact relationship can vary depending on the nature of these tasks. Below are some examples of different dependencies. For each one, imagine two tasks, task 1 and task 2, with the latter depending on the former.

  • Finish-to-start: This is the most obvious type of dependencies, outlined in the birdhouse example. If the dependency between task 2 and task 1 is a finish-to-start dependency, it means task 1 has to be completed before the work on task 2 can begin.
  • Start-to-start: In this dependency, work cannot begin on task 2 until work has started on task 1. Completion of task 1 isn’t necessary.
  • Finish-to-finish: Task 2 can be started without even having to look at task 1, but it can’t be completed until task 1 is.
  • Start-to-finish: This is a rarer type of dependency. Work on task 2 cannot be completed until work on task 1 starts.

These dependencies can exist between tasks handled by the same individual, multiple individuals, even multiple teams and departments.

How to manage dependencies

It’s simply not possible to avoid all dependencies. Even if you stubbornly refused to collaborate with anyone else, your own work would be crisscrossed by these complicated relationships. However, even if you can’t eliminate dependencies, you can make sure they don’t keep you from delivering on your projects. Here are a few ways that project managers — and other collaborators — can manage dependencies throughout their project:

  • Build a roadmap: These are widely used by product and software teams, but everyone can benefit from a roadmap. Roadmaps represent key initiatives that your team will tackle, usually over a pre-determined period of time, like a fiscal year. With a roadmap, you can establish dependencies before any work begins.
  • Keep stakeholders informed: It’s tough to know exactly what each team is up to. If you’re frequently collaborating with other teams, you need to keep stakeholders from other teams involved. Their different perspectives can help you spot dependencies you’d otherwise miss.
  • Think outside the box: Before tackling your next project, bring in everyone who’ll be working on it. Set up a brainstorming session where you ask them to come up with every possible dependency they can think of. Encourage them to be creative. You might be surprised by what they come up with.
  • Run retrospectives: If you’ve had a project go a bit haywire because of unexpected dependencies, you need to take the time to look back and figure out what happened. By running regular retrospectives, you can iterate on your team’s processes and get better at spotting potential problems.
  • Use a work management tool: Many work management tools, like Asana, Wrike, and Trello, have built-in features for tracking dependencies. For instance, Asana lets you build these relationships right into its tasks, so you always know exactly what to expect.

Dependencies and the Gantt chart

What is a Gantt Chart - Visualization

The Gantt chart looks a bit like a horizontal bar graph. Time is tracked on the horizontal axis while the vertical axis lists all the work that needs to happen to complete a project. Each of the bars represents the time an individual task will take to complete. They’re stacked so you can quickly recognize which tasks need to be tackled before work on another. The bars can also overlap slightly, showing that work on one task can begin even though a previous task isn’t completed — often representing a start-to-start dependency.

Gantt charts are built to track the time-related dependencies between tasks. This way, no matter where you are in your project, you can see how your work affects what other collaborators are up to. Because they’re so simple, they can easily represent any kind of dependency visually, making them easier to recognize and understand. Many work management tools, like Basecamp, Jira, and Trello, have built-in Gantt chart features.

Want to learn more about Gantt charts? Check out our beginner’s guide here.

Can I depend on you?

Dependencies should rarely surprise you. By taking the time to brainstorm and discuss your project with stakeholders and collaborators, you should be able to identify most of them. There’s nothing worse than getting ready to start a task only to realize you need to wait on someone else’s work. But with a keen eye for these dependencies, you can spend less time worrying about them and focus on getting things done.

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