How to Determine the Critical Path in Project Management

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Critical paths are powerful visual tools for project management.
Critical paths are powerful visual tools for project management. (Image: Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Getty Images)

The critical path is a project management tool used to plan the sequence of activities and duration of a project. It helps determine if the overall deadline for a project is realistic and identify areas where time can be gained. Determining the critical path is often one of the last steps in project planning, but should not be overlooked.

List all the activities for the project. Think about all the activities necessary for the project to be completed. For example, if you are planning a large event, you need to contract with a venue, secure speakers, advertise, order catering and secure sponsors. This list will depend on the complexity of your project, but try to be as exhaustive as you can.

Diagram the activities. Draw a diagram that plots the activity as a circle and arrow or bubble diagram. Each circle is an event (or a deadline or goal). The arrows represent the activities necessary to move from one circle to the next. At a circle, you could have multiple activities. With the event planning example, once you have a date selected, you can start contacting speakers and soliciting advertising. You can also have multiple arrows headed from multiple activities toward a circle.

Determine the time needed for each activity. Consider how long each activity will reasonably require. Consider events that could delay your planning and consult with others working on the project to determine how long their activities should take. Write the duration of each activity beside the arrow on the diagram. The arrows don’t have to be to scale.

Plot the critical path. The critical path is the longest route to the final product. It will not touch on every goal or every line, but will be the longest amount of time necessary to complete your task. This helps you identify if your final deadline is realistic, or, for longer-term projects, when you need to start work.

Tips & Warnings

  • You could use a Gantt chart -- a kind of bar chart -- to help identify activities and links between activities.

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