Dependencies in Project Management | Smartsheet (2023)

Project dependencies are relationships between tasks that determine the sequence of work in a project. With help from experts, we’ll show you how to identify and manage dependencies in your own work.

In this article, you’ll find different types of project dependencies, a downloadable project dependency template starter kit, and expert opinions on the benefits and challenges of managing them.

What Are Project Dependencies?

Project dependencies, also called task dependencies, are relationships between tasks based on their sequence. Dependent tasks require one or more other tasks to be completed or started before the team can start work on them.

Think of project dependencies as a series of gears that can’t begin turning without all the others ahead of it. Creating and using dependencies ensures that you can complete workflows accurately every time.

The Importance of Project Dependencies

Project dependencies are a key part of project planning. Having a clear sequence of tasks helps ensure that teams complete work correctly and efficiently. Stay organized, avoid delays, and manage complex projects by identifying dependencies.

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Trevor Larson, CEO and Co-Founder of Nectar, explains why you should manage and account for project dependencies: “Dependencies can impact the timeline or budget of your project. If you depend on an external tool or service, any changes or delays caused by an outdated version can add to your time and costs. In some cases, not managing your dependencies can even create security risks. If you're using an old software version of a library with known vulnerabilities and aren’t following a regular update schedule before starting on new projects, your project could be at risk.”

Types of Project Dependencies

There are four main types of project or task dependencies. Each outlines when a task can start or finish based on the status of another task. Some tasks might be dependent on more than one previous task.

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“It's really important to know your dependencies so that you can plan your project in the most logical and efficient way. For instance, if you were building a house, you would pour the foundation before you put in the plumbing, and you would finish the plumbing before you close up the walls. If you do any of these out of order, you're not going to be able to build your house. The same is true for every project. There are always things that need to be done before others can be successfully completed, and managing them is a critical part of bringing your project through to successful completion,” explains Molly Beran, President and Founder of Projects By Molly.

It is also important to remember that multiple tasks might share one or more dependencies. As in Beran’s example, both wiring and insulation would be installed before closing up the walls, which is also around the same time the plumbing would be set up.

Keeping in mind this potential for more complex systems, we’ve outlined the basics of the four types of project dependencies below:

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  • Finish to Start: In this scenario, task A must finish before task B can begin. This is the most common example of a project dependency and is generally the most straightforward. For example, a fabrication team cannot begin building until the final design has been approved.
  • Start to Finish: In a start-to-finish dependency, task A cannot finish until task B has started. These are less common but are prevalent in retail and shift work environments. For example, the morning shift in a restaurant’s kitchen cannot finish their day until the evening shift has arrived and started their own.
  • Start to Start: Start-to-start dependencies require task A to start before task B can begin. For example, a writer cannot begin to revise an article draft until the editor has started to edit it.
  • Finish to Finish: In a finish-to-finish scenario, task B cannot finish until task A has finished. Start-to-start and finish-to-finish dependencies are often related to one another. For example, a server cannot finish serving everyone at a table until the kitchen has finished cooking and plating each dish that was ordered.

Key Dependencies in Project Management

There are five key dependencies in project management. The four internal dependencies are based on logic, resources, preferences and best practices, and cross-team dependencies. In addition, some dependencies come from external sources.

These are the key dependencies in project management:

  • Logical: Logical dependencies follow a logic-based binary, such as an if-then statement. Some tasks must be completed before it is possible to complete other tasks. Logical dependencies follow a predictable path from start to finish.
  • Resource-Based: Resource-based dependencies deal with available resources rather than task completion. Resource dependencies can be focused on the availability of labor, financing, materials, or software and upgrades.
  • Preferential: Preferential dependencies refer to best practices for the completion of a task. These dependencies suggest that it is best to let the glue dry or the data mature before moving on to the next task in the sequence.
  • Cross-Team: Cross-team dependencies relate to deliverables and tasks completed by other teams. For example, the sales team must wait for the engineering team to complete a new software product before they can start offering it to customers.
  • External: External dependencies refer to any circumstances outside the business’s control, such as weather events, bureaucracy, or legislature.

In addition to these key project dependencies, it is important to understand the idea of blockers. A blocker is any event or circumstance that can hinder the completion of a project task, such as team member absences or shipping delays. Note that most tasks have some combination of both internal and external dependencies of varying impact.

Internal Dependencies in Project Management

Internal dependencies in project management include logical, resource-based, preferential, and cross-team dependencies. We’ve listed more subcategories below and provided examples of each.

These are some common internal dependencies:

  • Task Based: Basic, task-based dependencies follow a logical path to completion. For example, you must print shipping labels before you can mail customer orders.
  • Team Based: Team-based dependencies require collaboration between teams. For example, you can’t take product photos for sales brochures until the production team produces a prototype to photograph.
  • Approval Based: Some dependencies are based on approval requirements. For example, you can’t purchase new large-scale manufacturing equipment until you get approval from the CFO.
  • Best Practices Based: Many dependencies are based on the best practices required to complete a task. For example, it is best to let your kitchen equipment cool down completely before cleaning it.
  • Resource Based: Resource-based dependencies require certain items to be available for use before a task can begin. For example, you cannot print sales brochures without the right kinds of cardstock and ink.
  • Software Based: Some dependencies require software inputs or updates before tasks can progress. For example, you must update storage software regularly for continued secure access to data.

External Dependencies in Project Management

External dependencies are outside of a business’s control. They can be the most difficult to predict and manage. These include factors such as deliveries, weather events, finances, and traffic changes.

These are some common external dependencies:

  • Deliveries: Supply chain issues can affect project timelines. You can’t start the work to build a product if the materials haven’t arrived.
  • Weather: Good weather is a requirement for many construction-related tasks. You cannot begin construction on a house while there is a hurricane.
  • Bureaucracy: Most industries require various certifications and permits, which are dependent on local bureaucracy. Oftentimes work cannot begin before the team secures those permits and certifications.
  • Traffic: Traffic congestion can delay some work. For example, you cannot set up your booth at a trade show when all of your equipment is stuck in a traffic jam.
  • Finances: A company’s finances, especially regarding loans, can cause delays due to dependencies. You cannot start purchasing expensive equipment when your loan funding hasn’t come through.
  • Legislature: Some dependencies are based on anticipated legal changes. For example, a restaurant in a dry county might have plans to start offering wine if the ordinance changes.

Dependencies in Project Plans

Many project managers highlight dependencies during project planning. Dependencies can affect project budgets, schedules, resources, and risks. It is important to account for them early in the planning process.

Part of project planning is to create a network diagram and identify the critical path to project completion. By breaking down your project into its core components and identifying the ways in which they relate to one another, it is easier to see which tasks are dependent on information or deliverables from previous steps or projects. Highlighting these task dependencies helps to ensure that your project schedules, budgets, and resource requirements are as accurate as possible.

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Also important to project planning are project constraints, or the limits within which your project must operate. Project dependencies might rely on certain constraints, particularly resource availability. If a project is constrained to a single software engineer, it will take longer than if an entire engineering team was available.

Project Dependency Examples

Project dependencies come in many forms. There are different kinds of dependencies for different industries and project sizes. We’ve gathered some common examples that project managers might encounter in their own work.

Here are some visual examples of project dependencies:

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  • Branded Ad Campaign: Creating and launching a branded ad campaign requires the creation of a brand style guide. Before you can make your style guide, you must put together a creative team. Once this team finishes creating the style guide, they can work on designing the materials that will be in your ad campaign. While the creative team works on branding and design, the marketing team needs to find and purchase ad space. As soon as you meet these dependencies, you can launch your ad campaign.

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  • Email Marketing Campaign: An email marketing campaign first requires market research. While research and analysis are ongoing, your creative team can get started on the visual materials in your email template. When the research team completes market analysis and determines a marketing strategy, your writers can create the email copy. Once your team meets all of those dependencies, your emails can go out to your subscribers.

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  • New Store Location Opening: Opening a new store or business location requires the purchase or lease of the building, then designing the space and hiring for the new location can begin. Once you have your new staff, you can begin training them. This can happen while you purchase, fabricate, and install interior furnishings. During this time, you must also secure all needed permits and certifications to open your new business. Once you meet these dependencies, your new store can celebrate its grand opening.

Project Dependency Examples by Type and Industry

Along with visual maps, we’ve created a table of basic examples for each type of dependency that you might find in a construction, IT, or marketing project. The chart makes it easy to see how task dependencies between industries can vary, but also how they can look similar to one another.

Project Dependency Examples by Type and Industry

ConstructionITMarketing
LogicalThe team must build structures in a particular order so that they maintain stability and functionality.Apps follow a logical development process of conception, design, programming, testing, and launch.A marketing campaign must follow a logical progression of steps from conception to research to campaign design and rollout.
ResourceConstruction cannot begin until necessary building materials are present.App development requires that skilled software engineers are available, as well as high-end computer hardware and reliable internet connections.Access to large-scale printing machines, availability of billboards, or access to certain kinds of cardstock or ink can affect a direct mail marketing campaign.
PreferentialIt is best practice to cure and dry the cement foundation before continuing to build on top of it.It is best practice to test a new program for bugs and errors before sending it out for use by the general public.It is best practice to perform focused market research before designing an ad campaign. This helps ensure that your message gets out to the right people.
Cross-TeamPlumbing and electrical teams must complete their installations before the drywall team can close up the walls.Sales teams must wait for the software engineers to send them usable demos or final products before they can share them with and sell to customers.Marketing teams rely on production teams to produce the products and services they sell to customers.
ExternalInclement weather, such as rain or snow, might delay the building schedule.Security vulnerabilities or large-scale power outages can affect IT schedules and budgets.A marketing campaign's schedule might have to change if a competitor releases an identical campaign two weeks before the intended rollout.

How to Identify Project Dependencies

In order to identify project dependencies, you must first create a map of project tasks. Next, look for tasks that the team cannot perform until they receive information or deliverables from a previous task. Those tasks are dependent.

Think of your whole project as a series of workflows or a flowchart. Map out the major steps needed to complete the project. Next, map out each step required to move between those steps. Make note of events that must occur before you can move on to the next task. These are your dependencies.

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Generally, dependencies become obvious when looking at the project as a whole. Sometimes this isn’t the case. Cornelius Fichtner, President of OSP International LLC, suggests visualizing dependencies to better understand them. “I mostly use Kanban boards or Gantt charts to show team members what stage the project is on and which tasks are dependent,” he says.

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Lee Dobson, Head of Client Services at Bulldog Digital Media, suggests another approach. “There are a number of ways to identify project dependencies. One way is to use your project schedule and identify which tasks are dependent on other tasks being completed first. Another method is to look at the project resources and identify which resources are constrained and how that affects the next steps. Additionally, you can look at the project risks and identify where they might have an impact on your project schedule or resource dependencies,” he explains.

How to Manage Project Dependencies

The best way to manage project dependencies is to learn how to identify them. Staying organized and having strong communication with your team will help as well. We’ve outlined these and other best practices for managing project dependencies below.

Here are some best practices for managing project dependencies:

  • Learn to Identify Dependencies: The first step to successfully managing project dependencies is learning to identify them. “Pay attention to anything that could impact the timeline or cost of your project. This includes both dependencies and internal constraints such as team size or budget. Then, make a list of all the potential dependencies so you can keep track of them throughout the project,” suggests Larson.
  • Stay Organized and Updated: Keeping your project information up to date will help you spot dependencies early on. It can also help you identify ones you may have missed. “Generally speaking, it's best to identify dependencies and constraints as early as possible. The trick is making sure you routinely keep an eye out for new and missed dependencies. This can be more easily done via weekly status meetings with your team, or by consistently asking about them throughout the project,” says Beran.
  • Identify and Track Risks: Create a risk log, and use it to keep track of risks as your project advances. Risks are often linked to constraints and dependencies, so it can be valuable to keep an eye on them as part of your general risk management strategy.
  • Make Contingency Plans: Allocate extra time into your schedule and money into your budget. Some dependencies are entirely out of your control, and something as simple as a missed delivery window might derail your schedule. It is always a good idea to have a backup plan.
  • Communicate with Your Team: Communicating the status of deadlines and deliverables is crucial to managing expectations surrounding dependencies. “Project dependencies are managed poorly when there’s a lack of communication between teams and departments in a business. When clear goals and time frames aren’t set for each project and it isn’t clear how each task depends on the other, processes aren’t managed effectively,” explains Fichtner.
  • Use Software: Many project management software programs include tools to help track and manage project dependencies.

Project Dependency Management Tools

Project managers use various tools to track and manage project dependencies. Choose the tool that fits your organizational style and the needs of your team. Kanban boards, Gantt charts, calendars, and project management software are all useful.

  • Kanban Boards: Kanban boards are tools that help you create visual workflows for project tasks and phases. They can be made digitally using software or physically on a wall or whiteboard. Use a Kanban board to break down a project into its component parts and more easily identify dependent tasks.
  • Gantt Charts: A Gantt chart is a horizontal bar chart that acts as a visual scheduling tool. Each bar represents the time it takes to complete a project task or phase. The vertical structure of these bars indicates when one task ends and another begins. Gantt charts can help a team identify and visualize task dependencies.
  • Shared Calendars: A lower-tech solution to dependency monitoring is the use of shared calendars. Project managers can use shared calendars to indicate start and end dates for project tasks. This is a great option for tracking scheduling dependencies, but it is much harder to use calendars to track resource-based or external dependencies.
  • Project Management Software: Project management software can combine these tools into a single solution, using their best elements to create a powerful project planning and dependency tracking tool. Many let you visualize your dependencies in multiple ways, which can be helpful for identifying those that may not be immediately obvious.

For more project management tools and templates to help you plan projects and manage dependencies, check out this collection of free Excel project management templates.

Project Dependencies Template Starter Kit

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Download Project Dependencies Starter Kit

We’ve created this starter kit to help you start working with project dependencies. We’ve included everything you need to identify and manage dependencies in your next project, including a Gantt chart template created especially for tracking project dependencies. All of these templates are completely customizable to suit your business needs. Download each template individually or as a set in the complete kit.

Included in this kit, you’ll find:

  • A work breakdown structure diagram template for Microsoft Excel to help break your project down into smaller steps and phases.
  • A Gantt chart template with dependencies for Microsoft Excel to help you visualize and track all of the tasks required to complete your project.
  • A project risk log template for Microsoft Excel to help you identify and manage potential risks your project may encounter

For more help identifying and managing project dependencies, check out our collections of work breakdown structure templates and Gantt chart templates with dependencies.

Project Dependency Questions

You might wonder how to get started managing project dependencies. There are some questions you can ask to help identify dependencies and make a plan to manage them.

Ask yourself the following questions to help you create a project dependencies management plan:

  • What is the best way to start managing project dependencies? The best way to start managing project dependencies is to first learn how to identify them in your work. Start by breaking down your project into individual phases and tasks, and make a note of which ones depend on the start or completion of other tasks.
  • How do I know if a task is dependent on another task? A task is dependent on one or more other tasks if it requires information from, deliverables from, or the completion of another task to begin or end. These can be anything from the logical progression of project tasks to resources or approval needs.
  • What external dependencies should I track and manage for my project? Managing external dependencies is a form of project risk management. You cannot control everything, but by staying aware of weather patterns, delivery dates, and local legislature, you may be able to anticipate some external dependencies.
  • What Recurring Dependencies Have I Seen in Similar Projects? Many times, similar projects will have similar dependencies. If this is not the first time you have approached a project of this kind, use your knowledge from past projects to help identify and anticipate potential dependencies.

Benefits of Project Dependency

There are many benefits of identifying and tracking project dependencies. These include better adherence to project plans, improved risk management, and better management of lead and lag time. Learn how project dependencies can benefit you and your team.

These are some of the biggest benefits of project dependency:

  • Better Management of Lead and Lag Times: Recognizing dependent tasks helps a project manager better manage lead and lag times. Lead and lag times refer to the amount of time a task can be moved forward or pushed back based on its place in the critical path.
  • Better Project Visualization: By laying out each project phase step by step, you create a visual project map that is useful for planning your project and sharing key information with stakeholders.
  • More Thorough Project Planning: By breaking down project phases into tasks and identifying dependencies, project managers can dial into the nuances of an upcoming project. When thinking about projects in this way, you can create more detailed project plans.
  • Better Adherence to Project Plans: Tracking and managing dependencies allows you to create more accurate project projections, which makes your plans easier to stick to. “You need to understand that each project task depends on others to create realistic project schedules. Dependencies help you keep track of the proper flow of the tasks,” explains Fichtner.
  • Better Risk Management: Many project risks are based on timing and project dependencies, so preemptively managing project dependencies is also a form of risk management.

Challenges of Project Dependency

Tracking and managing project dependencies can be difficult. Common challenges include accurately identifying them or finding complicated or conflicting dependencies. We’ve asked experts to share some of the biggest project dependency challenges.

These are some challenges of tracking project dependencies:

  • Can Be Time Consuming: The time required to break down each project phase is significant. Project managers must set aside planning time to identify dependencies.
  • Requires Frequent Updates: Managing project dependencies require that teams always have up-to-date project budgets, task statuses, and schedules. This can be difficult for teams with a more laid-back attitude to project management.
  • Requires Close Attention to Domino Effects: Changing one element of a project’s budget or schedule can have unintended effects down the line. Be aware that a seemingly minor dependency can have larger implications in later project phases. “It can be difficult to coordinate changes across multiple dependencies. If you change one dependency, there's a chance it will cause a domino effect of changes that need to be made, which can be time consuming and expensive,” warns Larson.
  • Does Not Always Progress Linearly: It is not always the case that task C is dependent on task B is dependent on task A. Sometimes, one task is dependent on the completion of two or more tasks, or it requires information from a later project phase and must be put on hold until then.
  • Can Create Circular Dependencies: It is possible that without thorough planning, you find yourself with circular dependencies. These are situations where task A requires input from task B, but task B requires task A to be completed before it can provide that input. In these more complicated situations, it is important to break down tasks as granularly as possible and identify dependencies that may be hiding within the tasks themselves.
  • Requires Up-to-Date Tools: Maintaining a regular software update schedule is critical to ensuring that your dependency tracking tools work as intended. “We often see recurring dependencies in our projects, such as relying on an up-to-date version of an operating system, using certain tools or libraries that are required for compatibility, and working with teams that are located in different time zones,” says Larson.
  • Is Not Always Obvious: While some dependencies are immediately obvious on the surface, many are not. It takes an experienced project manager to identify and manage dependencies that others don’t see coming. “I spent a lot of my career doing software implementations in healthcare settings, and whenever you are installing a new system, some dependencies people don't always think about are making sure that there is a strong network in place and that the people who will use the new system have the technical skills necessary. After that, every system has its own set of dependencies, either in terms of decisions that need to be made sequentially or feature sets that need to be configured before others,” explains Beran.

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