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“Zombies! They’re everywhere!” screams a terrified person running away from a darkened, dilapidated house. Behind her you see the zombies, slowly but relentlessly approaching, in a creepy mob, seeking to devour whatever they can catch.

You’ve seen this scene before in horror movies. But digital project managers have their own brand of zombies, doggedly pursuing them at every turn. They are project dependencies, those unpredictable connections between projects, between your project and a host of unknowns, or other task relationships.

They lurk behind every corner. They haunt you day and night, seeking to overwhelm you with their sheer numbers and consume your project in a tangle of complexity. They come up behind you when you least expect them and take over your project. Zombies and project dependencies are always sneaky!

A Zombie Handbook: Rules For Managing Project Dependencies

What project managers need is a “zombie handbook” — a set of rules that will keep projects safe and healthy when internal dependencies within the project and other factors try to hunt you down.

Project and project task dependencies are threatening to your project because they add complexity and because they’re unpredictable. The PM on a single project doesn’t have control over some other project team or function.

And yet projects within a company draw on a common pool of resources, from functions like sales, QA, regulatory, etc. When more than two projects are involved, complexity multiplies, and they can spin out of control, not just exponentially but factorially.

What any given stakeholder does has an effect on your team members whether you like it or not. For example, your project might depend on a piece of software that another project is developing — a predecessor task that must be completed before a successor task in your project can begin.

At first, it looks like that other project will have no problem delivering on time, but as days slip by, and then a week or two, you start to hear the zombies approaching. They’re coming for your project!

You might think it was difficult to anticipate this risk. But now it’s upon you, and then you’re in its grasp! It’s too late to consult your zombie handbook.

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Project Dependencies And Risk Management

The first chapter in the zombie handbook advises that project managers think of project dependencies in terms of risk management. The moments when your project is dependent on other people or events outside your control are inherently risky. An external dependency that is out of your control and that could have a negative impact on your project is a type of risk.

An important step — often overlooked — is to define the risks to your project early on. How do you anticipate these risks? Start by dividing them into categories such as:

  • Technical risk — Example: You’re using a new technology, whether new to the world or new to your company; will it work as promised?
  • Partner risk — Example: You’ve outsourced the development of an API; will the partner deliver on time to meet your project schedule?
  • Market risk — Example: Your project will enter a new, but adjacent market; do we really know the field?
  • Internal risk — Example: The sales team’s plate is full; will they have materials ready for my project‘s trade show?
  • Resource risk — Example: You’re building a new website but it needs testing; you assume that the resources are available for this work but did you clarify it with the function in question?

Your project may also become dependent on factors in the wider world beyond your control. For example, platforms such as Bluetooth that always seem to cause headaches. Or your project‘s success may depend on a government constraint like GDPR or another regulation, whether domestic or overseas.

Project Dependencies And Team Roles

Much of the risk around project dependencies derives from unchecked assumptions. You thought so-and-so was working on an important deliverable, but the timeline was unclear. Managing complex dependencies requires proactive communication, and people just aren’t good at that. Too often, we assume, and assuming is always fraught.

So, here’s another rule from the zombie handbook: where you are able to anticipate dependencies, seek out the parties involved. Get them on the same page.

Sounds elementary? Yes. But how many projects run into difficulties of one type or another because of simple misunderstandings? At TCGen, we have developed a modified, improved version of a RACI chart that can help. It defines roles and responsibilities within your project, not between projects, but it’s a start.

It helps you anticipate dependencies because it shows which functions will be involved in your project and when. This enables you to define the areas in your project that are likely to be dependent on other projects, or external factors like regulatory bodies or development partners. A tool like a Gantt chart or Kanban board can also help with this.

And speaking of tools:

Managing Dependencies: Two Methods From The Project Management Toolkit

Here’s two more tools that can help stave off the zombies:

Critical Paths

You’ve heard of the concept of a team of teams. That’s when you frame your whole company as a meta-team, composed of many teams that freely come together in an adaptive way. Resources and people move elsewhere in a free flowing fashion when they’re no longer needed.

zombie with tombstones showing the critical path method

The critical path method.

Now you may know the critical path method that maps dependent tasks, as part of a project plan. Imagine a map that showed the critical dependencies and the critical paths between multiple projects. Like a critical path of critical paths.

zombie walking through a winding road

Critical paths are useful for keeping track of dependencies across projects.

Just as the critical path method shows the dependencies between project activities, the critical path of project dependencies might show where there are dependencies between multiple projects. A critical path of project dependencies would identify the key dependencies between projects, as well as within projects.

2. Release Plans

Another key chapter in the zombie handbook: release plans. You know this tool from Agile. It divides larger projects into separate releases, whether you’re releasing to the market or not, and breaks them down into their constituent sprints.

example of a project release plan

An example project release plan.

Identify the sprints that are the most risky from a project dependencies perspective. Contact the key leaders and PMs. Give them fair warning about the zombies in your path.

Managing Project Dependencies: More Tips From The Zombie Handbook

What else do you need in your zombie handbook? Here’s a few common-sense tips for managing project dependencies — before they start managing you!

  • Accept that all projects have dependencies. The bigger the project, the more it’s going to have. If you don’t think you’re going to have them, or can’t imagine where they’ll be, try harder.
  • Write down your assumptions about dependencies. Divide them into different types of dependencies like “partners,” “other projects,” “external parties out of my control,” etc.
  • Understand the project architecture. Meet with the tech leads and map the project integration: when which pieces must fit together. Identify the known dependencies.
  • Clarify functional roles and responsibilities. Get in touch with PMs of dependent programs. Talk about the dependencies and assess the project risks.
  • Monitor dependencies and communicate. Include key dependencies as agenda items in team meetings or updates.
  • Have a formal escalation process. Know who to reach out to in case of a problem.

Project Dependencies: No Silver Bullets

You can hear them coming but you can’t see them. To digital project managers, these unanticipated risks and complex dependencies are the proverbial things that go bump in the night. But these “undead” don’t need to kill your project.

It’s messy, since there’s no silver bullet or garlic necklace for neutralizing these monsters. But the steps outlined above can mitigate risk before you run out of the creepy house screaming.

Zombies are everywhere. So be prepared. With some planning and some care, you’ll always be one step ahead of them!

For more on preparing for project dependencies and how they work in the real world, subscribe to The DPM Newsletter, or sign up for membership! Or, listen to our podcast: How To Talk About Risk And Have Everyone Listen.

John Carter
By John Carter

John Carter is Founder of TCGen Inc. and a widely respected expert on product development. He is a co-inventor of Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones and designer of Apple’s New Product Process. He has consulted for Abbott, Amazon, Apple, Cisco, HP, IBM, Mozilla, Roche, and 3M. He is the author of Innovate Products Faster, featuring more than 40 tools for accelerating product development speed and innovation.