Early-career project managers often feel that they need to learn an entirely new language in order to do their jobs. As the field of project management has grown in complexity and importance, hundreds of new terms and acronyms have been coined and adopted. New project managers need to become familiar with as much of this project management lingo as possible in order to communicate with other managers and find the best approach for each project.
“Critical path” is one of the most important of all project management concepts, and it’s something that every project manager should understand before taking the reins of a major project. Put simply, the critical path of a project is a specific sequence of tasks that must be completed on time in order for the project to meet its deadline. Each task on the critical path can only begin after the previous task on the critical path is complete.
Why is the Critical Path Important?
The critical path helps project managers and team members identify the tasks that do not allow for any flexibility in timing. While some project tasks have a certain amount of “float”, meaning that they can be delayed or extended without affecting the overall project timeline, tasks on the critical path have zero float. Any delay in a critical path task will result in a delay in the final deliverable, unless future tasks can be modified so that they consume less time than initially planned.
In some cases, monitoring the critical path is so important that the project follows a special methodology that organizes project activities based on critical path task dates and requirements. This approach, known as critical path project management, is often used for construction projects and in other instances where deadlines are inflexible and task durations can be estimated with high precision. Even when projects follow other methodologies, project managers should have a solid understanding of the critical path so that they can accurately evaluate the effect of potential delays or time overruns.
Identifying the Critical Path
Whether you are using the critical path method or another methodology to manage your project, you should identify the critical path as early as possible in the planning phase of the project. On simpler projects, a project manager may be able to identify the critical path simply by starting with the first project task and looking for later tasks that cannot start until the first one is complete. The dependent task with the longest duration becomes the next step in the critical path. The longest-duration task that is dependent on the second step becomes the third step in the path, and so on.
Enterprise project managers typically use advanced project management solutions like Clarizen to help automate the process of calculating and monitoring the critical path throughout a project. Not only can project management software streamline the project planning process, it ensures that every change in task scheduling or duration is properly documented and communicated to the entire project team.