Confused about the critical path method (CPM)? Or how to apply it for your projects?
We’ll explain everything you need to know about it in a super-simple way! We’ll show you why it’s important and how to practically use it for project planning.
By the end of the article, you’ll be a CPM expert!
Here’s a quick overview of what’s in store:
(Click on the links to jump to a specific section)
- What is Critical Path?
- What is the Critical Path Method?
- How the Critical Path Method Deals With Constraints and Contingencies
- Advantages Of The Critical Path Method
- Steps On How To Use The Critical Path
- How To Calculate The Critical Path In a Project Management Software (ClickUp)
Let’s get started.
What Is A Critical Path? An Example Everyone Can Understand
Before diving into project management, let’s take a really simple example.
Say I want to make a new stool.
To do this, I only need:
- Three legs
- Something to sit on
The materials I would need would be:
- Some nails
And tools would include:
- A saw
- A hammer
- A wood shaver
My tasks would include:
- Cutting the wood into legs
- Shaping a circular piece to sit on
- nailing it all together
I could also:
- Add sealant
But these aren’t critical tasks for the completion of the stool.
Those task activities are functional and helpful and would make a better stool. But I would still have a stool whether I did those extra tasks or not.
The Critical Path Method is only the essentials.
What is the Critical Path Method?
The Critical Path is the bare minimum tasks you have to complete to finish a project.
Since these are all essential tasks, the critical path can determine the minimum amount of time required to complete a project. Remember: If any of the tasks on the critical path are delayed, then the whole project will have a late finish.
The Critical Path Method helps you identify the tasks most vital to a project’s completion when you’re running short of time.
With the critical path, you can bypass any irrelevant tasks and only finish the ones that are integral to a project’s completion. Additionally, you can also assign more resources to the critical tasks if necessary, to further shorten completion times.
For instance, if you have a lot of frontend design work on a brand new feature, it may be important to get more contractors to help reduce those time estimates, bringing down your project completion estimate and shortening your sequence of activities.
The Critical path works best when the tasks are sequential, meaning that one task has to be done before the next one can begin. It can be used in any industry you can think of – be it writing software or running clinical trials.
The Critical Path Method has clear start times and end dates, with each task connected to the one before it. This is often shown in conjunction with Gantt charts, to relate the connections between each.
What Is Float?
Float (also known as Slack) is an important concept related to the critical path method.
Float defines the amount of time a task can be delayed without causing a delay in:
- Any subsequent tasks (called free float)
- The overall project (called total float)
As tasks in the critical path are integral to a project’s completion, they have zero float. There’s no margin for delaying these tasks – critical path activities have to be at the top of your priority chain.
However, high float tasks aren’t as important and can be delayed to refocus your project planning efforts on the important critical path tasks.
How the Critical Path Method Deals With Constraints and Contingencies
Want to know why the critical path method is so popular?
Because this scheduling technique is skilled at handling the volatile nature of project management. Be it delays, scope creep or changing client demands; the CPM can handle it. Here’s how:
A) Fast Tracking
When running short of time, you can start to fast track individual tasks. This process involves moving multiple activities to the critical path chain to reduce your overall time. Needless to say, you can only fast track activities that don’t depend on any predecessor tasks to begin.
While this is an effective way of speeding individual tasks up, it can be risky. Trying to fast track tasks without a good resource leveling isn’t a good idea ( Resource leveling is the process of balancing the demand for resources with its supply.)
Your overall work quality could suffer from fast-tracking as you’ll be taking on more resources than you can handle. This could lead to poor CPM scheduling where you’re dealing with bottlenecks and missed deadlines.
Crashing involves adding additional resources to an activity to complete it faster and meet deadlines. For example, if a construction project is running behind schedule, you can assign three more builders to it to get it done on time.
Two things to keep in mind:
- Not all individual tasks benefit from crashing as additional resources don’t always speed things up.
- It’s important to always reallocate your resources from high float tasks. As these tasks are relatively unimportant, they can deal with a temporary lack of resources.
Never reallocate resources from priority tasks while crashing in project planning.
Those critical path tasks need all the resources they can get – the cost of removing resources from them is going to ruin your CPM scheduling process.
Advantages Of The Critical Path Method
1. Shorter Project Timeline
The critical path lets you identify the sequence of activities vital to a project’s completion. This lets project managers postpone high-float tasks that aren’t integral to a project. As you’re only focusing on the critical path activities, you’ll have a considerably shorter project timeline that’ll help you meet your task deadlines.
2. Helps Visualize Dependencies
The CPM calculates your most vital tasks and their dependencies to give you the most integral task sequence to follow. This helps managers visualize the connections between multiple tasks and determine which tasks are waiting on each other to be completed.
3. Improved Rescheduling
As the critical path includes task dependencies in its calculations, scheduling becomes easier. You can make as many planned schedule changes as you want without worrying about upsetting any task dependencies.
Also, if you plan your critical path out on a Gantt Chart, it’s easy to make changes on-the-fly and visualize where you stand at the moment.
More about exactly how to make planned schedule changes in a subsequent section.
4. Optimize Resources
The critical path helps project managers reallocate resources and attention to the most important tasks in a project. They can identify what tasks are low and high-priority and make the necessary changes to add/remove resources respectively. This gives you a shorter project timeline that’s more resource-efficient.
How To Use The Critical Path Method
Here’s how to use the Critical Path Method for your projects in 3 simple steps:
Step 1 – Define Your Project Scope
Before developing your critical path, it’s important to list all your project tasks – from start to finish. Using a project’s work breakdown structure from its program evaluation stage will give you all the information you need to proceed. Some companies use a PERT chart (Performance Evaluation Review Technique) and CPM network diagram to identify this.
Once you have your work breakdown structure ready, identify the tasks that are dependent on any other tasks. This won’t be hard to do as dependent tasks are usually fairly easy to spot on your logic diagram. For example, a UI design cannot be conducted without a wireframe.
Step 2 – Plan It Out On A Chart
Now that you have your list of tasks in sequential order, you can start to plan it out on a chart. While some companies use bar graphs, Gantt charts are a much better option for critical path tracking.
Use a Gantt chart software to do this really quickly and avoid the complex process of creating a manual diagram!
List your tasks and resources on the chart along with the length of time required for each one. Try and estimate which tasks need to be done earliest and which ones will take the longest. You can also add certain milestones and deliverables here to give you a measure of progress.
Step 3 – Critical Path Analysis
Now that you have your tasks, milestones dependencies mapped out on your Gantt Chart, you can conduct a critical path analysis.
Highlight the sequence of zero float activities that are vital to a project’s completion. Monitor this carefully as a schedule delay in any of these tasks will result in a late finish. Remember, a single project may have multiple critical paths pertaining to different tasks – it’s up to you to determine identify these multiple critical paths and adhere to them.
For example, if any critical path task is delayed by two days, so will your final completion date. Use the fast-tracking and crashing technique carefully to avoid a late finish in case anything comes up.
How To Conduct A Critical Path Analysis In ClickUp
ClickUp is the world’s best project management software and is used by companies like Apple, Google, and Airbnb. It’s got tons of project management features to handle every aspect of your project planning process. It has features such as:
- Custom Views – list, boards, calendars, etc.
- Custom Statuses – for each stage of your project
- Time Tracking
- Custom Access Rights
- And more!
It’s a one-stop solution to make your work way more productive and accomplish bigger goals!
Here’s how easy it is to calculate your project’s critical path in ClickUp:
Calculating The Critical Path In ClickUp’s Gantt View
Usually, calculating the critical path isn’t an easy process. Most experts recommend using a complicated PERT Chart to determine your work breakdown structure first. Then, you’re expected to use a complex critical path algorithm and CPM network diagram to manually sort out the right sequence of activities.
While many people still use this manual method, it’s time-consuming, confusing and impractical. Why not let a tool like ClickUp estimate your variables and conduct the CPM scheduling for you instead, right?
Here’s how ClickUp simplifies this process:
- Open the Gantt View in ClickUp.
- Select the group of tasks you’d like to calculate the critical path for.
- Click the arrow button to calculate the critical path for the tasks selected.
No PERT chart, no complex critical path algorithm, no CPM network diagram – all you need is a few steps and ClickUp has it ready for you.
But that isn’t all.
ClickUp’s Gantt Charts aren’t boring, antiquated graphs. They’re extremely powerful and can help you manage complex projects using the CPM easily.
Here are some of its features:
- It can automatically readjust task dependencies when you reschedule tasks.
- It can instantly calculate your progress percentage based on tasks completed/total tasks.
- It can compare current progress vs. expected progress in your planned schedule.
With ClickUp’s Gantt View, you’ll have no trouble working the CPM and getting your project back on track.
Other ClickUp Features That Can Help You With The Critical Path Method
Prioritizing activities is a huge part of the critical path method. Your project management tool must be able to prioritize your zero float tasks to get your team focused on them immediately. Simultaneously, it should be able to deprioritize high float tasks to move your team away from them for the time being.
With ClickUp’s priorities feature, you’ll have no trouble doing this.
You can easily add priorities to each task in ClickUp to give your workplace a measure of how important it is. These priorities also come with an easily identifiable color-coded system:
- Red: Urgent
- Yellow: High Priority
- Blue: Normal Priority
- Grey: Low Priority
As this color code is constant across ClickUp, your team will find it easy to identify priority tasks – irrespective of the project they’re working on. Additionally, they can sort and filter their tasks by priority to access these critical path activities easily.
The CPM is all about defining the right sequence of tasks for a project’s completion. Your team needs to attempt the right tasks in the right order for a project to progress smoothly. If they attempt a task that’s still waiting on something else, it could spell disaster for your completion date.
To help them with this, ClickUp comes with powerful task dependencies.
These dependencies will ensure that your team only attempts tasks when they’re ready to be worked on.
Here’s a closer look at the dependencies that ClickUp offers you:
Waiting On Dependency: This shows your team that they shouldn’t start this task until a previous one is completed.
Blocking Dependency: This stops a task activity from being started until a previous one is completed.
Dependency Warning: This warns people against closing a task activity when it’s waiting on another one to be completed.
Unblocking Notifications: Your team will receive notifications once a task activity is unblocked so that they can start working on it.
The CPM also emphasizes effective time management. Its main goal is to get a project started and finished on time. But you can’t do that without setting start times and due dates in the first place, right?
Luckily, it’s super easy to do that in ClickUp.
Just click on the calendar icon next to a task and you can set it’s start time and due date. You’ll also be able to sort and filter your tasks by start time and due dates to tackle the most urgent ones to reach your milestones.
The Critical Path Method CPM is one of the most efficient ways to reduce the time required to complete a project and achieve an early finish.
While manually calculating it can be difficult, a project management software like ClickUp can simplify the process for you. Why not sign up for ClickUp today and start streamlining your project planning experience immediately?