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How dependency mapping can lead to better project outcomes

PostsProject management
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

April 15, 2022

No team is an island. But if you want to make Agile work, having an awareness of what’s going on around you is crucial. Dependency mapping is the process of identifying and visualizing all the dependencies between team members, stakeholders, and other factors that can impact a project.

The aim of the game is to make sure everyone involved has a clear understanding of their role and how it relates to the rest of the project — something that’s incredibly useful when you need to move things along fast. Read on to learn more.

What are project dependencies?

Project dependencies are essentially any factor that can impact a project’s outcome. This could include team members, stakeholders, dependencies on other projects, or even the weather. Here are some real-world examples:

  • You have to write and edit an article before you can publish it.
  • An app can’t go live until you develop it.
  • A cake isn’t ready for icing until you bake the batter.

As you can see, every task we do is related to another one — and the same is true in project management.

The key is to identify and map out these dependencies as early as possible, so everyone involved is aware of how their actions can affect the project as a whole.

Here are some common dependencies in the workplace:

  • Team dependencies: if one team member is out sick or behind schedule, other teammates awaiting a specific task aren’t able to do their work.
  • Stakeholder dependencies: when a stakeholder changes their mind about a requirement, it can impact the project’s timeline or scope.
  • Cross-project dependencies: if one project depends on deliverables from another project, any delay could affect the timelines of both projects.
  • External dependencies: project factors that happen outside your organization often include the weather, supplier delays, or government regulations.

Why is dependency mapping important?

There are a few reasons why dependency mapping is so important in Agile Scrum. Firstly, it helps to avoid any surprises during the project. If everyone knows what’s going on and what they need to do, there’s less chance of things going wrong.

Secondly, it helps to ensure everyone is working toward the same goal. When everyone knows their role and how it fits into the bigger picture, staying focused and on track is much easier.

Thirdly, having dependencies reduces risk. When you add ‘layers’ to a process, such as quality control, editing, or checking, you lower the risk of problems getting overlooked. Errors are far more likely if you have just one person responsible for everything.

Dependency mapping is also a great way to improve communication and accountability between team members and stakeholders. By visualizing how each step relates to the others, you effectively create a shared understanding of the project.

Finally, it can help to speed up the project. By identifying potential bottlenecks early on, you can make sure they’re dealt with before they cause any delays.

Should dependencies exist in Agile teams?

Theoretically speaking, Agile teams should be self-contained little units of concentrated work. So, for that reason, you might think collaborating with other individuals or teams raises the risk of crossed wires or extra paperwork — two factors that slow projects down. And there is certainly logic to this line of thinking.

Some dependencies do slow things down. As part of an Agile team, it’s everyone’s responsibility to be open about processes that aren’t working, so you can weed out inefficiencies.

The goal of Agile teams isn’t to get rid of all dependencies, but to make sure they’re well-managed and useful. Here are some key focus areas to help you do that.

  • Practice continuous improvement to reduce the need for dependencies: be proactive about streamlining processes and automating tasks whenever possible. If there’s less manual labor involved in a project, there are fewer opportunities for things to go wrong.
  • Encourage collaboration between cross-functional teams: one benefit of an Agile environment is that teams are usually colocated, making it easy for team members to pop over to each other’s desks for a quick chat. This helps to build trust and understanding between team members, and it can prevent misunderstandings further down the line. If you have remote workers or a geographically dispersed team, make sure you have tools to make conversation easy, such as video software and chat apps.
  • Get everyone on the same page: communication is key in any project. In an Agile project, it’s even more critical. That’s why regular stand-ups, sprint reviews, and retrospective meetings are a necessity. They give everyone a chance to voice their concerns and ensure the whole team is up to date with the latest developments.

The bottom line? Dependencies aren’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s how you manage them that counts.

What does dependency mapping involve?

Here are the key aims:

  • Identifying relationships between work tasks
  • Working out task order
  • Understanding why tasks depend on each other
  • Creating a visual representation of the dependencies
  • Having a working document that maps out all the dependencies
  • Providing a clear overview of the project as a whole

Types of dependencies

Internal… external…discretionary…what does it all mean? Allow us to explain.

Internal dependencies exist within a team or system. For example, an editor might depend on a writer to create an article for their company blog. A marketer might depend on analytics data to create the roadmap for a marketing campaign.

External dependencies exist between teams or systems. For instance, a developer might rely on a designer before they can begin coding. Alternatively, one system might depend on another system to function correctly.

Discretionary dependencies are those you could technically remove without affecting the project. However, they’re often kept in place because they offer some sort of benefit. For example, a team might choose to work with another team to share best practices or knowledge. Or, you might implement a control process to help ensure quality.

Mandatory dependencies must be kept in place for the project to be successful. For instance, one team might depend on another for access to certain data or systems.

Types of dependency mapping

Here are some of the most popular methods for mapping dependencies:

Task lists: this is the most basic form of dependency mapping. You simply create a list of all the tasks and identify which of them are dependent on other tasks.

Gantt charts: this is a more sophisticated form of dependency mapping. Gantt charts allow you to visualize the relationships between tasks in a timeline format.

Backlog Gantt chart, example of dependency mapping

Example of a Gantt chart in Backlog

Dependency diagrams: this is the most sophisticated form of dependency mapping. Dependency diagrams allow you to visualize the relationships between tasks in detail and identify potential bottlenecks in your process.

Kanban boards: Kanban boards allow you to visualize work at various stages in the process, see task dependencies, and spot bottlenecks.

Why should you visualize project dependencies?

Although it might seem like more work, visualization is well worth the effort.

When you see numbers presented in diagrams, it’s much easier to take in a large volume of information. Diagrams also help you communicate the task relationships to stakeholders, who might otherwise struggle to take in all the complex data.

Finally, visualizing your dependencies can help you hone in on the risks involved in your project. By literally seeing the relationships between tasks, you’ll be able to spot problems that could impact the successful completion of your project.

How to run a dependency mapping session

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to dependency mapping. The process varies depending on the specific project and team involved. However, there are some general steps you can follow.

Stage 1: introduce the session

The first step is to introduce the session to the team. Explain what you’ll be doing and why it’s important. It might be helpful to give a brief overview of the different types of dependencies and how they can impact a project.

Stage 2: brainstorm the systems affected

Next, brainstorm (remotely or in person) all the systems the project could affect. These could include anything from technical systems to human resources.

  • Mention the owner of each system or task
  • Discuss the type of risk
  • Describe the impact

Stage 3: brainstorm the tasks involved

The next step is to brainstorm all the tasks you need to complete in order to deliver the project successfully. This should include everything from big-picture tasks, like defining the scope, to more specific tasks, such as writing the code.

Stage 4: identify the dependencies

Identify the dependencies between all the tasks. You can do this using a task list, Gantt chart, Kanban board, or dependency diagram.

It’s often helpful to use different colors to represent each type of dependency (e.g., red for team members, blue for stakeholders, etc.).

Once you have a visual representation of the dependencies, discuss them as a group. This is a good time to ask the following questions:

  • What are the risks associated with this dependency?
  • What can we do to mitigate those risks?
  • Who is responsible for each dependency?
  • What happens if a dependency isn’t met?

By asking these questions, you can develop a plan for dealing with each dependency in the most effective way possible.

Stage 5: discuss the implications

Once you’ve identified all the dependencies, it’s time to discuss the implications. What does this mean for the project? Do you need to mitigate any risks? What are the next steps?

  • A risk breakdown structure will help you prioritize risks according to impact and likelihood, as well as help you work out a mitigation plan.

Dependency mapping tips and best practice

Now that you know the basics of dependency mapping, here are a few tips to help you get the most out of it:

1. Make sure everyone is on the same page

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: communication is everything!

Before starting a dependency mapping session, it’s important to get everyone on the same page. This means clarifying the scope of the project and the roles and responsibilities of each team member.

2. Use a whiteboard or digital idea board

When mapping out dependencies, it’s helpful to use a virtual whiteboard. This aids collaboration and makes it easier to see all of the tasks and dependencies in one place. You’ll also have the ability to make updates and send out notifications in real time.

3. Identify potential risks

Stay on the lookout for potential risks. For example, are there any tasks that are highly dependent on others? If so, what would happen if those tasks were delayed? By identifying potential risks ahead of time, you can sufficiently prepare to deal with them if they do occur.

4. Keep it up to date

Remember that dependency maps aren’t set in stone. Think of them as living documents you need to amend from time to time. Instead of letting it languish in an untouched file, add new tasks and dependencies as they arise while archiving items that are no longer relevant. By keeping your map up to date, you can ensure everyone always has the most accurate information.

5. Use it to plan your work

In addition to being a helpful tool for tracking dependencies, you can also use dependency maps to plan your work. For example, use your map to identify which tasks you can do simultaneously or need to complete in a specific order.

Final thoughts

Dependency mapping is an incredibly useful tool for Agile Scrum teams. By following these tips, you can get the most out of your efforts. To keep those efforts to a minimum, however, we recommend taking full advantage of the wealth of tech at your fingertips.

Try diagramming tools for online whiteboard sessions, chat apps for remote catch-ups, and, most importantly, project management tools to keep your map up-to-date and accessible. Not only does online PM software store all your data in a central hub, but it also offers features for assessing risk, crunching numbers, and planning your work more effectively. These three capabilities are an absolute must in project management.



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