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3 wildly effective strategies to manage project dependencies

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Article by 
Tefi Alonso
  —  Published 
December 29, 2022
June 7, 2023

A big part of managing project risk is managing project dependencies.

In strategies with a portfolio of interdependent projects, success is also determined by the effective management of project dependencies. Underestimating the impact of a failed project on the plan’s success leaves the execution part crippling.

In this article, we’ll explain the different project dependencies and give you three wildly effective strategies to handle them.

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What are project dependencies?

There is a dependency between two projects when the success of one or both of the projects depends on the success of the other. Most multi-project endeavors have a lot of dependencies complicating their execution.

Why does managing project dependencies matter?

Leaving project dependencies unchecked is a bad idea.

Because they are the highest risk factors. That’s the easiest way to wreck your project’s budget and timeline. And when there is a long chain of interdependent projects, wrecking one link in the chain will have a disastrous cascading effect. An effect that could easily render the business plan’s timeline unrealistic.

Poorly managed project dependencies are a danger to a company’s strategic plan.

What are the types of dependencies in project management?

The 4 kinds of dependencies

There are four ways that two projects depend on each other regarding their completion timeline.

four kinds of project dependencies

Finish to Start

Project 2 can’t start until project 1 is completed.

For example, you can’t furnish your offices until the building is built.

Finish to Finish

Project 2 can’t be completed until project 1 is complete.

For example, you need to finish digging the whole field before you finish sowing.

Start to Finish

Project 2 can’t be completed until project 1 has started.

For example, you can’t bill a customer unless you have started working on the order.

Start to Start

Project 2 can’t start unless project 1 has already started.

For example, you can’t start writing a book summary unless you’ve started reading the book.

Not all dependencies occur with the same frequency. The finish-to-start is a much more frequent dependency than the start-to-finish, which occurs on very specific occasions.

The 2 types of influence on dependencies

Managing your project’s risk rests on the influence you command on the project dependencies.

There are two kinds of influence: direct and indirect.

And they come down to your ability to influence people’s behavior. For example, you can’t influence the behavior or decisions of external partners. You can guide them, dictate dates, requirements, and expectations, but you can’t tell them what to do or how to execute. It is up to them to meet your demands. Thus, you command indirect influence on them.

That’s usually true for inter-departmental collaborations, too.

On the other hand, you can directly influence the decisions and behavior of the people in your team. Thus, you have higher control over the outcome of the project your team is responsible for and whether you meet the requirements.

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How to manage project dependencies: 3 wildly effective tips

Managing project dependencies is a process that requires a diverse set of skills to be effective. It’s not necessary for the project or portfolio manager to have all of the required skills, but their team should collectively be able to carry through.

These skills relate to the various strategies deployed to ensure projects are completed within budget, timeline. and specifications. Here are three wildly effective strategies you can use to improve the odds of success for your interdependent projects.

1. Reduce the number of dependencies

This is the first and maybe most impactful action you can take.

Map the dependencies between your projects and then address every single one of them. We suggest starting with the longer chains of dependent projects. Break them down into smaller ones and figure out single points of failure you should address.

Pay extra attention to dependencies you have an indirect influence on because they present the highest risk factor. If something goes wrong, you want to be able to fix it quickly and not wait for others to respond to your messages.

Focus your efforts on restructuring the projects or their tasks and redistributing them, so there are as few involved parties in a single chain of dependent projects as possible. Then align incentives between teams and parties to increase your odds of smooth collaboration. Things like attaching rewards to the project’s scope, e.g., deadlines, specifications, and having different teams that work on interdependent projects share metrics and goals go a long way.

Eliminate dependencies and break long chains. If you can't, align incentives between involved parties.

2. Invest in effective communication

Over 60% of organizations fail to deliver their projects on time, within budget, and with full benefits.

A significant factor that is often overlooked is poor communication between involved parties. Engaging the stakeholders is a highly valuable activity for a project’s success.

After reducing project dependencies to a minimum, you need to establish efficient communication processes for each dependency. Specify ahead of time your preferred communication channel and clarify expectations. Make sure you discuss and agree on:

  • The owners of tasks or projects.
  • Your contact, i.e., the single person you communicate with, in case ownership isn’t clear.
  • The follow-up dates and the milestones’ deadlines.
  • The information included in the reports. Prepare some templates, if you have the time, and distribute them.
  • The active communication channels and determine backup ones.

In communication, context is everything.

People act more responsibly when they understand the immediate impact of their decisions. Notify people with direct influence on projects about the consequences of missed deadlines or sub-par project deliverables. If you’ve successfully tied the project's scope with the reward, remind your partners.

Don’t make a threat. The goal is to foster trust with transparency, not destroy the relationship.

Effective communication is a catalyst for strong relationships, and strong relationships respect project specifications and deadlines.

3. Invest in the right tools

There are no magic tools that evaporate risk or offer ready-to-act solutions.

Tools help you make decisions and develop the solution on your own. But they need to be sustainable in the long-term while retaining their value add. Here’s a typical portfolio management scenario:

  • The team builds an excel sheet with all the projects, their timelines, their budgets, their ROI, and as much detail as possible. If there is technical knowledge, they also build a Gantt chart.
  • The first changes start to come in, and the team updates the spreadsheet.
  • More changes occur. Updating the spreadsheet takes the back seat, and the team focuses on putting out fires and meeting the deadlines.
  • The changes are so many, you try to track them in a different document until you find the time to update the original spreadsheet.
  • The original spreadsheet is obsolete, the complexity is off the roof, and you play catch up with project updates and deadlines.
  • When did everything go sideways?

This example seems a bit simplified, and it is. But unfortunately, it’s closer to the truth than most project managers are comfortable admitting. The next best solution is to adopt a digital platform to keep track and manage projects. There are a plethora of project or portfolio management platforms out there.

So, the question is, how can you choose the best one?

From a strict project management perspective, most software in the market is sufficient. For portfolio management, though, you need to be more selective. Here are the qualities you should be looking for:

It's scalable. You want many people to have access to the platform and make updates. It’s not sustainable in the long term for one person to collect the changes and then spend time updating the plan. It flows much better when the work is delegated to project owners.

It’s sufficiently sophisticated. A platform that doesn’t support a Gantt chart, for example, isn’t very useful when it comes to portfolio management. On the other hand, task management features add distracting noise without providing value. Managing multiple projects and their dependencies benefit from subtracting useless information and focusing on the essentials.

It facilitates reporting. Reviewing progress and discussing judgment calls require accurate representation of the current progress. A simple overview of projects’ status stirs the conversation towards the things that need immediate attention. The platform you choose should be able to support and drive the reviewing conversations.

Again, there are no magic solutions, and adopting software on a large scale requires some cultural changes, as well. But it’s worth it because it helps prevent mistakes of omission or poor tracking.

A surprisingly common and understatedly critical omission of most portfolio managers is the impact of mismanaged project dependencies on the business’s strategy. When a few minor missed deadlines, poor communication, and sub-standard deliveries evolve into disastrous chain reactions, long-term plans become fantasies.

Portfolio (and project) managers who recognize their limited human capacity to manage complexity and decide to adopt modern tools offer their organization a significant advantage in executing its strategy.

If you’d like to find out more about how Cascade can help you manage your project portfolio while aligning to your business’s strategy, start a free trial or jump on a demo with our team, and we’ll walk you through everything you need to know.

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