Finding The Critical Path is a Critical Project Management (and Life) Skill

I’m a project manager, have been for four decades. I think about the fastest and most efficient path to get to a desired outcome all day every day. It starts with simple tasks like making coffee–what’s the fastest way to get a hot cup of coffee in my hand? It ends with making dinner–how and when to combine 20 ingredients to get a great dinner on the table as fast as possible? In between I work on multi-step, multi-deliverable team projects–there are lots of dependencies and if I miss a task deadline it will impact others and the project goal.

The critical path is found by arranging the work to achieve the goal as quickly as possible with the fewest resources possible. Things get interesting if by applying more resources some tasks can be accomplished more quickly (e.g. a two-day task can be accomplished in a day by putting two people on it). That introduces time-resource tradeoff questions (i.e., do you want it faster or cheaper?).

Project Plans

Project Management Institute is a leading trainer in the field. They offer an initial certificate, Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) and the Project Management Professional (PMP).

The PMI Educational Foundation aims to leverage project management for social good by helping schools and nonprofits build project management skills. Download their Toolkit for Teachers (signup required).

PMI EF also offers a digital badge for students in Project Management Fundamentals digital badge for students. The digital badge is designed for students aged 12-19 years who have developed project management skills and knowledge in school or as part of an extracurricular activity.

With a couple modifications of traditional project management for schools, PMI EF suggests that every student project start with a plan that considers this four-step project cycle:

Because this post is focused on the critical path, let’s focus on the Planning Phase which is made up of the following components: success measures, schedule, resources and acquisition, risk management, monitoring and controlling.

Planning starts by identifying the tasks and activities that contribute to milestones. PMIEF offers the example of planting a garden.

There are six steps to creating a sequence and schedule for a project: establish milestones, define activities, list tasks, determine sequence, estimate time, and build, review and revise schedule.

For simple examples like cooking dinner the project plan might be a recipe. For planting a garden, the plan might be quickly jotted notes. For longer projects with lots of dependencies, a project plan helps identify and sequence tasks and consider alternate routes to the finish line.

The planning phase is where you consider what could go wrong–could it be hard to find a resource or could something take longer than expected? Contingency plans may be warranted for a big risk.

What to do first? PMIEF said, “Sequencing is one of the most challenging parts of scheduling, but it is critical.” It is impacted by how long tasks will take and if they are dependent on other tasks.  Project management software can help identify the best sequence, but sticky notes on the wall work well for simple projects. You’re looking for a chart like this with activities and durations that help you determine how long the project will take and what kind of resources will be required:

After the sequencing is established, you can move your schedule onto a Gantt chart like this:

Why Critical Path Matters

Most young people will manage projects every day for the rest of their personal and professional lives. Helping them build good habits of planning and scheduling tasks, and learning to adjust plans when the context changes, are some of the most useful skills they’ll learn in school.

Identifying the critical path as part of project-based units is a great way to teach algebraic reasoning and computational thinking. They learn risk management and quality control. Try it with your next project–or with dinner tonight.


For more on project management, see:

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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