The Role of the Critical Path Model in Project Collaboration

2024-02-22 16:00:00
Mark Stillman
Original 537
Summary : It falls to project managers to keep the wheels turning. But where should you start, and how do you prioritize? Find out how the critical path method can help.

Project managers have a lot of plates to keep spinning. They must develop solid action plans, coordinate their people, and ensure consistent progress. And, when there’s too much to get done at once, they must juggle many deadlines.


It can be a huge headache. Even knowing where to begin can be difficult. That’s why so many project managers rely on the critical path method (CPM) to direct their efforts.

I. What is the critical path method?

The critical path method finds the longest sequence of dependent tasks in a project. You then calculate the time between the first and final tasks in the chain. This provides an idea of a project’s ideal duration. Ultimately, this helps you focus on different tasks, both in and outside the sequence.


Let’s say your project focuses on improving customer ratings as part of call centre operations management. In this case, the critical path might be the performance review process. As the longest sequence of tasks, this could take three weeks.


But you also have other tasks feeding into the same goal. For example, updating computer software to improve performance. You then realize you can update employees’ computers while they’re in review meetings. This way, you can complete tasks with less (or no) wait time while more time-consuming tasks are in progress.


Project delays can bite a business in various ways. Extra costs, damaged client relations… These can all add up. But CPM gives you a way of completing more tasks without increasing project runtime.

II. Essential benefits of CPM

Using CPM is like finding a landmark on a map. X marks the spot. By identifying X, or your longest task sequence, you have a focal point to organize everything else around.


Let’s break down some of the key ways CPM can make life easier.

1. More accurate scheduling

The most obvious benefit of CPM is that it enables more effective scheduling practices. The duration between the first and final tasks gives you a time limit to work around. If your estimates are accurate, you should know how likely you are to exceed any deadlines.

2. Improved risk identification and mitigation

As the team leader, it’s on you to manage project uncertainty. CPM helps by highlighting the relationships between dependent tasks. This makes it easier to spot the potential impact of things going wrong.

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From here, you can develop contingency plans ahead of time. For instance, delays might mean performance reviews take longer than expected. So, you might switch from office-based meetings to virtual one-to-ones as a way of speeding things up. Planning this contingency ahead of time can make it less disruptive in the event it comes into play.

III. Easier task prioritization

Since you know your project’s duration, you can figure out the “float” for any task on the docket. Float is the amount of time you can leave a task without impacting its final deadline.


Going back to our call centre example, let’s say a task is for tech support. You need staff to know how to access a remote desktop on iPad with RealVNC. Training an entire department can be time-consuming. On top of which, your staff need this training to do their jobs effectively. So, this task has very little float to speak of.


Additionally, you may have tasks related to implementing training solutions. These platforms can be crucial for conducting virtual training sessions efficiently and can also impact your project's timeline, so consider their float as well.

IV. 5 steps to planning your critical path

1. Identify tasks

Once you have a project goal in mind, the first step is to identify all the tasks feeding into it. This is like using SMART goals. You’re breaking big objectives down into manageable milestones. For this stage, it’s enough to list them. The following steps will then help you organize them.

2. Establish the proper sequence

Establishing the correct sequence of tasks means figuring out the order of dependencies. Which tasks do you need to finish before you can start on others?

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Imagine setting up a contact centre for a new tech firm. You need to bring in staff, train them, promote the service to clients, and so on. But, before all that, you need systems in place for your team to use. Phone networks, chat clients, and even VoIP systems. After all, what is a contact centre good for if nobody can contact the operators?


But the main reason this supersedes everything else is the training aspect. You can’t expect new staff to perform well without a system to study and train with. First, you set up the system. Then you bring in staff and train them. Finally, you promote your functioning call centre service to clients.

3. Generate a critical path diagram

Creating a diagram for your critical path method is the easiest stage. That is, assuming you identify all tasks and dependencies first.


There are various free and paid graphic design apps that make generating a diagram simple. You can even doodle it on a bit of paper if you like. At its simplest, you have boxes representing each task and arrows representing the order of dependency.

4. Calculate task durations and float times

Unlike the previous step, this is one of the most complicated. It helps if you’re already monitoring your business with data analytics tools. Why?

To complete this step well, you need to have an in-depth understanding of your business, project, and individual tasks.


Once you have an idea of a task’s expected duration, you need to calculate its float. This is especially important if it already looks like a given task will be a lower priority.

5. Generate your critical path

At this point, you should have everything you need to identify your critical path. Once you’ve picked out the longest sequence of activities, go through the rest of your tasks again. This time, identify the ones that align with your critical path.


Tasks that can be completed during your critical path’s time frame are your biggest time-savers. So, depending on float rates, those are the ones you should focus on when time allows.

Final thoughts

The critical path method can be a powerful tool for planning and management. It provides direction and involves manageable milestones. On top of that, the core concept is easy to understand and carry out.


That said, you should make sure CPM works for your project and team before committing to it. CPM relies on predictable time-frames and a solid understanding of your business. If you can’t reliably estimate the variables involved, it might not be the right approach for you.

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