The Critical Nature of the Critical Path

Most corporate houses use the Critical Path Method (CPM) to manage their projects. In fact, most standard project planning and scheduling software are designed to instantly highlight critical paths. Although every project manager would vouch for the utility of this tool, there are many instances where this actually tends to fail.

The Most Significant

In the course of development of project management methods, the CPM is undoubtedly the most important one when it comes to network analysis. The CPM, in short, tells the project manager that a particular set of ‘predecessor-successor’ bound activities actually drive the completion of the overall project.

However, the subtle definitions of how a software calculates critical paths is where the devil lies. Nevertheless, that doesn’t reduce the effectiveness or the utility of the tool. In my 20 years of practice, I have found this single tool to be the most significant and the most effective for project managers.

Despite all the praises for the CPM, there are certain situations where the CPM fails to deliver to its fullest extent. Lets get a more balanced perspective.


Theoretically, the critical path drives the duration of the project. Therefore, every project manager and stakeholder spend hundreds of meeting hours to discuss and ensure that these are well ‘managed’ and ‘on-track’. In doing so, however, they tend to ignore the remainder (and often times, the larger) set of the project. Usually, this leads to an unbalanced perspective, and faulty decision making, in most project circumstances.

Schedule Creep in Non-critical Segments

One of the common problems in project management is schedule creep. Activities that aren’t on the critical path, often times, slip. What is worse is that such schedule creeps are often ignored as they are ‘non-critical’. Under certain circumstances, this actually leads to a failure of the CPM as it could alter the reality and cause a gap between the project plan and the reality.

Scoping and Planning Philosophy

The critical paths are defined and derived using underlying activity plans and their relationships / dependencies. However, in any given project, if there is a wide variance in the activity durations across the baseline, then it is quite possible that the critical path is unreliable. For instance, projects where a few activities are of 3 month duration also have activities of 3 day duration. Such scenarios are dangerous and the critical path obtained is usually highly unreliable.

Frequent Re-baselining

Projects undergoing frequent re-baselining of their plans and schedules often witness changes in their critical paths. In such a scenario, the project manager keeps hopping all over the place, trying to grab and get a proper hold of the situation. In such situations, the CPM tends to fail.

Relationship ‘Troubles’

Critical paths are derived based on the relationships. However, many times project managers and team members change durations and relationships of certain activities to change the critical path of the project. The justification is, most times, a ‘nice to have’. This again kills the spirit of the CPM application and takes the project to a totally different level.

Compressed Schedules

Compressed schedules often tend to have multiple critical paths. This is a natural fall-out of any compression activity. When such an exercise takes place, care should be taken to ensure the suitability of the schedule for the application of the CPM. Unfortunately, most project managers don’t go by that logic. The end result is that the CPM is not usable.

To summarize, these are the key areas that one has to take care of, while applying the CPM to projects. To get an assessment of your project schedules and baselines, connect with us at Consulting Connoisseurs, the best management consulting firm for your needs and the only one that truly guarantees results! To learn more, write to us at or call +91 9619428209.

The Critical Nature of the Critical Path

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