The Critical Path Method Explained
The Critical Path Method, which you’ll sometimes see abbreviated to CPM, is a powerful and effective way of managing complex projects. Relied upon by project managers all over the world, this method is ideal for multi-faceted projects that might involve numerous departments, with strict deadlines and budgetary constraints that must be adhered to.
In this article, we’ll explain all you need to know about the critical path method, equipping you with the tools and knowledge you need to try it out in your next big project. We’ll talk you through what the method is and how it works before giving you a step-by-step guide on how you can put it into practice with your own team.
What do we mean by critical path in project management?
The critical path method relies on finding what’s known as a critical path that’ll take your project from initial ideas through to completion. The path is a sequence of tasks, all of which must be completed for the project to be finalized. Every task within this critical path is known as a critical activity.
Project managers use the critical path method to simplify enormously complex projects. It allows them to identify what needs to happen and when and ensures that the project progresses as it should.
There are endless benefits to using this methodology, ranging from improved efficiency and better inter-team communication through to cost savings and risk avoidance. The method is also hugely beneficial when it comes to effectively estimating time frames of projects.
What is critical activity?
Critical activity is a term that’s often used when we’re talking about the critical path method. Simply put, it’s every task that is vital for the project’s completion. Once a critical path has been identified, you can safely say that every task within that path is also critical and, therefore, can be called critical activity.
It’s worth noting that delays within the tasks that go into a project won’t always affect its delivery time, but any delays or hiccoughs affecting critical activity may well have a knock-on effect on how quickly teams can deliver the final project. So, while there is flexibility within the project as a whole, critical activity tasks must be delivered on time if the project is to sit within its estimated timeframes.
How does the critical path method work?
The critical path method works by simplifying complex projects, turning a vast mountain of different tasks into a set of tasks with an easily navigable route.
It’s perfect for teams managing hefty workloads, and it really comes into its own when used within projects that involve numerous departments, bringing together expertise from a whole range of different professionals.
Take a look at our step-by-step guide to learn how to use the critical path method.
List every task that needs to be completed
First things first, you need to think about what will really go into the project you hope to deliver. At this stage, we recommend talking to stakeholders and professionals involved in the project, to get a clear idea of what the project might entail.
Once you’re familiar with what’s involved, you’ll be able to start working on a comprehensive list of the tasks that will need to be completed for the project to be finalized. This list of tasks will then be used to help you establish what the critical path might be.
Order the tasks
List in hand, you’ll now be able to start thinking about how you’ll prioritize those tasks. Start by putting your tasks in chronological order, bearing in mind which departments will be focusing on which tasks. Meet with teams to discuss how they might approach different tasks to ensure that your ordering process is correct.
Check for task dependencies
Task dependencies are vital to establishing the correct chronological ordering of your tasks, so this is another thing that needs careful consideration at this point.
Many tasks simply cannot go ahead before a previous task has been completed, and that’s what we mean by task dependencies. Identifying task dependencies and thinking about task tracking will help to ensure the accuracy of your ordering, so you can avoid potential delays further down the line.
Consider the time each task might take
Now, it’s time to start estimating the duration of every task you have identified. This itself is a considerable task, but it’s well worth taking your time to get it right. You can use a number of different methods to estimate the expected duration of each task.
We often find simply referring to similar tasks in previous projects works well. You might also want to incorporate what’s known as parametric estimating, where you’ll estimate the time taken for a portion of a task and then simply multiply it by the portions that you expect will go into the task at hand, to come up with a suitable estimate of task duration.
Identify paths or strings
You’ll likely find that your project includes numerous tasks that are connected in some way, whether they be dependent on one another or require information or learning from a previous task to ensure their accuracy. These are known as paths, or strings. At this point, you’ll need to start looking at how many paths or strings you have in your project, so that you can begin to analyze what your critical path might be.
Find the critical path
Equipped with a comprehensive list of every path or string in your project, you’ll be ready to find that critical path. Design project management software makes this part far simpler, so if you have software available we’d definitely recommend you using it.
Analyze the paths that you or your software has identified, to find the one with the longest sequence. The path that is expected to take the longest is your project’s critical path.
Calculate the float
Once you have a good idea of the time that each task will take, and you know which tasks are critical and which aren’t, you can start to think about what’s known as the float.
The term float simply means how long tasks can be delayed, without the overall project being negatively impacted. It’s ideal when it comes to estimating flexibility within the management of a project, and often proves invaluable when last minute challenges arise.
Tasks that you’ve identified as non-critical are said to have some float, meaning that they can be postponed without the overall project suffering.
Use continuous monitoring of the critical path as your project progresses
Project management is a continuous job, and so too is the management of your critical path method.
Once the path has been identified and teams have begun working on their respective tasks, you’ll need to keep a careful eye on that path and be prepared to make updates as and when they might be required.
Remember that any delays to critical activity within the path will have knock-on effects on tasks further down the path, so you’ll need to keep on top of any changes and alter the path as needed.
How are critical paths represented?
One of the key advantages of using critical paths in project management is the fact that they’re so visual. This is perfect for teams working with complex projects, as it allows them to see, at a glance, what they’re working on and how their work fits into the bigger picture.
Project managers use a number of different diagrams and visualizations to represent critical paths. Traditionally, project managers used flow charts to display critical paths in a way that all teams could easily understand. Critical paths are also commonly represented in Gantt charts, which also provide a full visualization of the project schedule.
The benefits of using the critical path method
The critical path method is enormously beneficial for project managers working in a whole host of different industries. Take a look at some of the key benefits of this method below, to see whether it might help your team.
Efficient project planning
The single, most important benefit of the critical path method is of course the fact that it allows for incredibly efficient project planning.
With businesses coming up against increasingly fierce competition and teams facing ever-growing workloads, efficiency is vital in keeping today’s companies at the top of their game.
Project managers now need to ensure that projects are delivered swiftly, on time and on budget. And the critical path method allows them to do exactly that, while avoiding potential pitfalls that could derail the project before it even gets into its stride.
Prioritize tasks easily and effectively
Teams that are faced with huge piles of work and endless tasks to go through need to know what to work on first if a project is to come together.
The critical path method helps project managers to prioritize tasks, bearing in mind dependencies, paths and strings that will affect the decision making process.
Complex projects can raise huge challenges when it comes to prioritizing tasks in a way that works for everyone, but the critical path method shines a light on the top tasks for all teams, by creating a path through the project that all involved can easily understand.
Clear visualization of your project timeline
The visual aspect of the critical path method is another huge benefit to planning projects in this way. The critical path can be represented in a simplified way, through a number of different diagrams or charts.
Depending on the specific requirements of the project, and consideration of what might work best for their team members, project managers can choose to display this path in different ways. This enables project managers to come up with effective visualizations for their teams, helping to keep everyone engaged and motivated as they move through the project.
There are brilliant benefits to cross-team communication from using the critical path method. This method requires input from different stakeholders, as well as the professionals involved in making the project happen.
By getting team members involved at an early stage, and keeping communication channels open as the project moves forward, project managers can really nurture communication within their teams - and pave the way for better collaboration in future projects.
Manage resources and make the most of budgets
Today’s project managers are working with increasingly tight budgets, and resources are being stretched farther than ever before. This means that project managers need to be savvy with what they have to hand, and the critical path method often proves invaluable here.
By using the critical path method, project managers can identify what the project really needs - and what it can safely do without. Time frames can be accurately estimated and tasks planned for well in advance, avoiding last minute panics over resource availability or costly delays.
Avoid unexpected costs
This brings us nicely to our next point. With the critical path method, project managers can escape a number of unexpected costs that might have a real impact on their project budget. And that’s largely down to the fact that this method allows for clear, efficient project planning that incorporates budgets and timeframes in a way that works for all involved.
Resources can be allocated to the right tasks at the right times, avoiding any crossover where teams might require the use of the same resources at the same time. Advanced planning also helps to identify any challenges that could be on the horizon, giving project managers time to plan for them and allocate resources or budget as necessary.
Identify critical activity early
With the critical path method, project managers have a good idea, from very early on, of which tasks are really critical to the success of the overall project.
This is enormously useful when planning complex projects, as it gives both the project manager and the professionals involved a clear idea of which tasks they’ll really need to focus on.
Team members are vastly more motivated when they understand how their work fits into the project as a whole, and how the tasks they’re working on will facilitate the delivery of the next critical activity.
Check for risks and challenges in advance
Calculating the float time of tasks in the early stages can help to estimate the flexibility within a project, and is often enormously helpful when those inevitable problems do start to arise.
The critical path method allows for forward planning, helping teams to identify potential problems that might be coming up, and giving project managers plenty of time to work out how those issues might be navigated in a way that doesn’t hold the project back.
Better project management
In summary, the critical path method enables better, more efficient project management. Information is everything for project managers, so the more they know about the project before it begins, the more effectively they’ll be able to run it.
The critical path method really packs a punch where benefits are concerned, allowing for smoother, easier project management with better communication and collaboration amongst teams. And if you’ve got good project management software available, it’s easy to plan those tasks and identify your critical path from day one.
Start using the critical path method in your next project and you’ll soon see why it’s become so popular amongst project managers. The critical path method is invaluable when it comes to planning projects, and it can really help to manage team workflow too.
If you’d like to know more about how you can use project management software to explore methods like the critical path, don’t hesitate to contact our team. We’re here to help you get the most out of your project management software, so talk to us about new features and start exploring what Hello Ivy can do.