A no-nonsense guide to critical paths
A critical path sounds kind of dangerous, right?
Like something you’d hear in a movie – ‘stay away from the critical path’ or ‘tread carefully over the critical path.’
In reality, it’s not quite as thrilling.
It’s actually a method used by project managers to prioritize tasks and deliver a project on time. So perhaps not as exciting as a rotten bridge over a 1000-foot chasm, but still pretty useful if you’re a project manager.
So what exactly is a critical path, and what does the process involve?
Unlike most project management concepts, the title on this one doesn’t give much away.
That’s why we’ve created this no-nonsense guide to critical paths — A simple, straightforward resource to help you understand what they are and how you can put them into practice.
Keep reading to find out everything you need to know.
What is a critical path?
A critical path is used to figure out project duration.
A project’s critical path is useful to identify all the individual tasks that must be completed to finish a project on time. When identified, the project manager will have a really clear picture of the actual completion time of the overall project.
What do we mean when we say ‘critical’?
To put it simply, a critical task is anything that must be completed in order for the project to finish by deadline, and not a day later. If any of the tasks on the critical path don’t get completed, or get held up for any reason, the whole project is delayed.
What does a critical path look like?
Asking what a critical path looks like is kind of like asking ‘how long is a piece of string?’ — There’s no single answer.
The traditional critical path was shown as a flow chart.
Nowadays, there are other (more visually appealing) ways of presenting a critical chain.
Using a Gantt chart, for example:
Gantt charts work well because they allow people to visualize critical activities:
How to identify a critical path
Now, let’s take a look at how to identify the critical path method from start to finish.
#1: Figure out what all your tasks are for the project
Before you even start to think about a critical path, you need to figure out what tasks will be included in the project (your work breakdown structure).
Spend some time speaking with stakeholders to confirm the project details.
Once you have all the information, you can identify everything that needs to happen in order to complete the project.
#2: Put all the tasks in order
Once you’ve identified the tasks, it’s time to put them in chronological order and spot any task dependencies. This will help you figure out the timeline of the project.
So what’s the best way to put them in order?
Whether you’d prefer to create a project roadmap, a project tracker, or a project overview, using some work management software (like monday.com, perhaps) is a really great way to build your project schedule. It’s efficient, easy to use, and will give you a clear overview of all the tasks:
# 3 Estimate how long each task will takeIdentifying how long tasks will take is a pretty important part of the process. After all, the critical path method is all about figuring out which string of activities takes the most amount of time.
There are a LOT of ways to estimate activity duration.
To save you sifting through all the methods out there, we’ve outlined our top 3:
- Bottom-up estimating: Estimate each individual task and build your estimate from the ground up.
- Comparative estimating: Base your estimates on similar work or projects completed in the past. (If you used time tracking in previous tasks, you’ll see exactly how long they took)
- Parametric estimating: Estimating a portion of the work and then multiplying to get the overall estimate (i.e., If you believe 1 ad = 2 hours and you have 5 ads to do, it should take 10 hours)
#4 Find all the potential ‘paths’ or ‘strings’
In any project, there can be multiple paths or strings of connected and dependent tasks.
This part of the process involves finding all these possible paths and calculating how long each one will take so you can pinpoint the one with the longest duration.
By hand, this can be a HUGE headache with a high chance of error. Not ideal. Fortunately, project management platforms can do this automatically.
#5: Identify the critical path
Now for the main event. It’s time to find the critical path!
You — or your work management software — have identified all the paths and strings.
So how do you know which one is the critical path?
Easy: It’s the longest path through the project from start to finish.
So, if you’ve got a string of tasks that takes 8 days, one that takes, 6 days, and one that takes 12, the 12 day path is critical — It’s the one that can’t have any delays without moving out your project end date.
#6: Monitor the critical path
We hate to tell you this, but the critical path can (and most likely, will) change throughout the project.
Some tasks may take longer than expected, or new tasks added as time goes on. Any changes to the project can have a knock-on effect on the critical path.
This means you’ll need to check continuously throughout the project and update your critical path diagram accordingly.
We know, it’s annoying. And one of the limitations of using the critical path project management method is its lack of flexibility.
But there is something that can help…
With the right work management platform, software will keep on top of any changes in critical path activity and automatically update the current critical path in your project plan so you don’t have to.
What are the benefits of the critical path method?
Can you guess when the critical path method was founded?
Here’s a clue: Tom Hanks was born in the same year.
The answer? Drum roll please…
1956 is the correct answer! Congrats if you guessed it right.
So why has critical path analysis continued to be used for over 70 years?
#1. Accurate time projection
Using the critical path method draws your attention to the timescale right from the start.
Before work has even begun, you’re thinking about how long each task will take, what will happen if a critical path task becomes overdue, and which tasks must be completed on time to ensure the entire project isn’t delayed.
This means you’re able to give a pretty accurate completion estimate for your project. Especially if you’re using some kind of network diagram or Gantt chart to display the workflow.
Hint: Providing accurate timelines keeps stakeholders happy, so it’s a win all round. And with only 35% of organizations mostly or always completing the required work on time, it seems there’s definitely room for improvement.
Cesar Abeid, host of the Project Management for the Masses Podcast, says:
“The critical path method brings an important level of clarity to your project. […] If one of the activities on the path gets delayed, your project gets delayed. It is also a great way to determine where to invest resources if the project has fallen behind schedule.”
We definitely agree with him on this one.
The critical path allows you to see the project from a different perspective. A clearer one. You’re able to focus on what actually needs to be done to get the project finished.
It’s a pretty useful skill to have when managing a variety of tasks on a strict deadline, that’s for sure.
#3. Useful for large projects
Feeling overwhelmed at how many tasks you have to complete in one project? If that’s the case, the critical path method can be a life-saver.
For larger projects, the critical path allows the project manager to pick out the tasks that absolutely must be completed on time, no question about it. This can be really helpful when there’s a lot going on.
So there you have it. A simple, no-nonsense guide to critical paths including what a critical path is, the benefits, and how to identify them in your workflow.
Now that you’re clued up on what’s what, why not check out some project management software that enables you implement critical paths within your projects?
Our advice would be to start with our campaign tracking template to get rolling.