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Project Management

What is the Critical Path in Project Management?

The critical path method can help to plan and execute your tasks quickly and effectively. Learn how to apply CPM in your project management.

A critical path in project management is determined by identifying the longest stretch of dependent activities and measuring the time required to complete them from start to finish. This is a detailed process with much to consider, but with the right tool, identifying your crucial tasks and assigning them can be made far easier. 

The right project management software can apply the critical path method (CPM) to your workstreams, enabling you to finish on deadline and on budget. CPM is most effective in complex projects, but it will help you optimize any and all work your firm does, so you save money, time, and gain insight into your productivity.

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Critical Path Components

For project managers to apply the critical path method to their work, they first need to create a project schedule that includes all tasks and estimates the project's total duration, considering the dependencies between tasks and your project’s ultimate goals. Let’s break down each of these components.

All required activities

CPM starts with accounting for all of a project’s activities in sequence. What is everything that needs to happen for you to achieve your desired outcome? Make a list of each task and subtasks, noting if they're interdependent or concurrent.

If you’re unsure which activities are considered critical versus non-critical, think of it this way: Critical tasks will delay the overall project duration, and non-critical tasks won’t. 

Time to complete activities

For critical tasks and non-critical tasks, estimate to the best of your ability how long each will take. Of course, this gets easier the more you use CPM and project planning tools because you have relevant data to reference. While you want to be ambitious in what you can accomplish, be realistic too. Your entire project timeline is at risk if any critical activities are delayed.

For each task, determine its earliest start data and earliest finish date, as well as latest start date and latest finish date. The difference between earliest start date versus latest start date, and earliest finish date versus latest finish date is called “float time.” A project’s total float is how much activities can be delayed without hurting its completion date.

If you’re struggling to estimate how much time a project task will take, time tracking software can help you going forward, as it’s an easy way to accurately monitor project activities and find ways to work faster.

Dependencies between activities

Some project activities are independent of others, while some only begin once others finish. As you list your tasks, logically organize them according to the expected order. For each task, list its predecessors and specific dependencies. Doing this will confirm that your project schedule is in the correct order and will help you identify potential problems before they happen. As a project progresses, if you work out of order or don't follow the timing of the critical path, you won’t finish before the deadline. 

Once you've listed every project task and its dependencies, create a critical path analysis chart. This lets you visualize the project sequence and understand dependencies. Start your critical path analysis chart by creating a box for each task, putting them in sequence, and using arrows to represent dependencies between tasks.

Another way to prevent resource constraints and project delays is resource leveling. Resource leveling is the practice of allocating resources so that there are no resource conflicts as you work toward your project completion goal.

End Goals/Win Conditions

Before kicking off a project, decide what success looks like. What is the milestone you hope to hit or deliverable at the end? As you pinpoint dependencies, have your end goal in mind. What needs to happen at every stage for your project to ultimately succeed? What could happen at each step that would derail that, and how can you devise a contingency plan that prevents failure?

Why use the Critical Path Method in Project Management?

Improves project planning

Every project starts with a plan, but business leaders know too well that many projects don’t stick to the plan due to client feedback, scope changes, and other delays. Once you start applying CPM to your team’s projects, you can begin to measure your expectations against actual progress. With each project, you gain data that you can use to plan future work more accurately.

Encourages efficient resource management

The critical path method forces you to prioritize which tasks are essential and carefully choose how to deploy your resources (e.g., money or employee time). Say you have a recent hire. You may designate them as “non-critical” because they’re still learning the ropes. That way, your project timeline isn’t affected by their inexperience. Instead, you’d assign a more veteran team member in their role.

When it comes to expenses, completing your project within the planned budget is paramount. Using the critical path method, you can assign a planned cost to each task rather than the project as a whole, so you recognize sooner if you’re at risk of exceeding the budget.

For both human time and cost, resource leveling, as mentioned above, helps by preventing delays, dependency issues, and budget overruns. Using CPM for detailed resource planning gives you more control over a project’s success.

Prevents constraints

Part of CPM calls for dissecting how a project’s individual tasks and resources impact each other — also known as dependencies. When you understand the relationship between tasks, including sequence and which activities occur simultaneously, you can prevent unseen bottlenecks. For example, if step 1 is delayed by two days, you can quickly alter the plan so that step 2 isn’t affected and your project’s finish date isn’t delayed.

Different Types of CPMs

Two popular ways to implement the critical path method and keep track of a project’s many moving parts are Gantt charts and PERT charts. PERT refers to Program Evaluation and Review Technique and is a flowchart that displays tasks in separate boxes. This diagram has arrows between boxes that represent dependencies, making it an easy way to visualize potential obstacles or delays.

Gantt charts are horizontal bar charts that display tasks in a linear timeline with arrows for task dependencies. A benefit to using Gantt charts is they're easier to update once your project is underway, which can come in handy if the scope changes. While they're more flexible than PERT charts, they're more complicated to create. 

If your employees will also be referring to it, a PERT chart is much more accessible, as they can quickly see which tasks depend on others and who is responsible for each one. Gantt charts are a little more intimidating. You can't see its entirety without scrolling, so team members must view multiple pages to understand the big picture.

Both are helpful, but which one you choose should come down to your needs. Are you still in the planning stage? Go with a PERT chart. Project already underway? A Gantt chart will be better. Think your project will change once it's in motion? Stick With Gantt. Expect your project to remain relatively according to plan? PERT is best for you.

As built critical path (ABCP)

Because project planning depends on estimates, your critical path may change as you work. If your estimates aren’t based on precise data, and you aren’t able to pivot promptly to stay on track, your project won’t go according to plan. If this happens, consider the post-mortem activity of analyzing your “as built critical path,” or ABCP. Your ABCP will reveal the specific cause of what changed between your planned schedule and the actual schedule, so you can prevent it from happening again.

BQE Solutions for Project Planning

As a business owner, it’s overwhelming when something is out of your control. The critical path method is an effective way to gain more control over your firm’s tasks and projects. With CPM, you better understand your priorities, how fast you can work with the resources you have, and the best way to achieve your desired goal.

Another way to improve your project planning is to use project management software, like BQE’s CORE, an all-in-one-platform that centralizes resource management, time and expense tracking, project accounting, billing, and more.

For more project management tips, check out the rest of our blog, or to get started adding efficiency to how your firm works, sign up for your free trial of CORE today.

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