Back to Basics: Let's talk about the critical path…

The critical path…sounds pretty intimidating doesn't it? Like some secret passageway to getting your project done on time that only highly experienced project managers could ever possibly identify. And certainly those experienced project managers are the only ones who could actually stick to the path and get things done as planned.

It's not really as arcane as all that. The critical path is simply the series of tasks that controls the start and finish date of the project. When the last task in the critical path is complete, the project is also complete. Not too terribly complicated.

Here's an example. Let's say I have three tasks:

· Build forms (2 days)

· Pour foundation (1 day)

· Remove forms (2 days)

Each of these tasks depends on the one before it. I can't pour the foundation until the forms are built, and I can't remove the forms until I've poured the foundation. I can set these relationships up in Project using dependencies. (Want to read more about this? Check out Create task dependencies within your project.)

So now, with the dependencies set up and my project start date set to next Monday, my schedule looks like this:


[Insert drumroll here.] And there you have it, that's your critical path for this project. Nothing fancy or overly complicated, just a series of tasks that determine the start and finish date for the project.

What's that? You say you want to see something a little more complicated? Alright, let's say you have another task, Build walls, that can't start until your Build forms task is completed. (Maybe you're using the same resources on both tasks or something, I don't know, just run with me here.) The Build walls task will take two days. Let's see what this looks like in Project:


Now let's look closely at this. Has the critical path changed? There are four tasks now, but the added fourth task currently has no bearing on when the project starts or finishes. That means that those first three tasks are still the only tasks that make up the critical path. You still only need to focus on getting those three tasks done on time in order to finish your project on time.

That gives you the very basic understanding of what a critical path is, but there are a ton of resources out there to help you gain a more thorough understanding. Here are just a few:

· Manage your project's critical path

· Show the critical path

· See what's driving the project finish date (critical path)

· Change when a task becomes critical