The critical path method (CPM) helps project managers predict the duration of a project and make sure it finishes on time. Unfortunately, creating a CPM chart can be pretty time-intensive and requires you to break out your middle school math skills to do it correctly.
Fortunately, we've got just the thing: a critical path method template you can use right now for free. To get started, click the page up top called
or keep reading to learn how to use our CPM template as a part of your project planning process.
What is the critical path method?
The critical path method is a project management strategy that estimates the duration of a project by identifying its most important series of tasks.
(the veritable bible for project management) defines a "critical path" as "The sequence of scheduled activities that determines the duration of the project." A "critical task" is any task (i.e., activity) along this critical path. If even one critical task falls off schedule, it will delay the whole project.
Project managers most commonly use CPM to estimate how long a project will take and what needs to happen when for it to stay on schedule. You typically lay out all the project's tasks as well as each task's dependencies and duration estimates into a table. Then, you visualize all this data in a
. Once visualized in this way, you can see how these tasks relate to each other and which series of tasks are most important for on-time completion.
when they were battling plant delays. The idea arose out of a need for a better way to predict project duration and risks for on-time project completion. Around the same time, the US Navy created a similar methodology
Over time, CPM and PERT have become synonymous, with the main difference being how they treat task duration estimation. CPM only asks for one estimate, while PERT synthesizes three: fastest, most likely, and slowest. These days, most critical path templates include PERT's duration estimation strategy, making the two approaches one and the same.
Once the project manager knows the critical path for a project, they can prioritize resources towards critical tasks over non-critical tasks to ensure the project gets completed on time. If a critical task misses its deadline, the project manager knows how far off the project is from its original completion date and can communicate the situation to all stakeholders.
The 5 crucial steps in the critical path method.
The critical path method is a well-documented strategy that follows particular steps you need to follow in order to use it effectively.
1. Build a work structure around project tasks.
First, you need to list out all the important tasks that make up the project. Then, assign relationships to each task. Some may precede others (called predecessors), while others are dependent on previous tasks (called dependents).
You can use
like Microsoft Excel to create a table, a whiteboard tool
to create a network diagram, or a tool that's a combination of the two,
Once you map out the relationships between every task, you can start to understand how the work will flow.
2. Set the project schedule.
Once you assign task relationships, you can start to estimate task duration using PERT. For each task, make three estimations:
Optimistic(O): What's the shortest amount of time it will take to complete this task?
Likely (M): What's the most likely amount of time it will take to complete this task?
Pessimistic (P): What's the longest amount of time it will take to complete this task?
A good CPM template will then calculate the task duration for you. But, in any case, the
(O + 4M + P)/6
Now, you can start constructing a rough project schedule using both the relationships between tasks and the task duration.
Again, a good CPM template can
for you. But, if you're doing this yourself, keep in mind that each preceding task has to hit its deadline so each dependent can start on time. How long it takes for this series of tasks to complete is how long the project will take.
3. Create a critical path analysis chart.
A critical path analysis chart is a Gantt chart that maps out the relationships and duration of the project's tasks. It quickly visualizes how long a project will take, and the critical sequence of tasks that most impact its on-time completion (a.k.a. the critical path).
4. Identify the critical path.
The critical path is the series of tasks that take the most amount of time. If there is a delay with one of these tasks, there will be a delay with the entire project. Usually, but not always, the critical path is the longest string of related tasks on the Gantt chart.
5. Keep the CPM chart updated.
If a critical task misses a deadline, the project manager needs to update the CPM chart to see the updated project duration. It's the project manager's responsibility to keep the CPM chart updated and to let all team members know if anything falls off track.
👉 Get started with this critical path method template.
After you copy this template, you can start utilizing this free critical path method template for your projects and business.
Use Coda's critical path method template to streamline project workflows.
Step 1: Add project tasks and predecessors.
The first step in using this critical path template is to add your project tasks in the
page. You simply click on the
Add A Task
button on this page, and a new row will get added to the
table. To clear the dummy data in this template, click the
Clear sample data
Once you have all the tasks added, the next column to fill out is the Predecessor(s) column. You'll notice that this dropdown simply looks up to the same table. In most critical path method templates in Excel, you have to enter in the task ID of predecessor tasks in multiple columns (if there are multiple predecessors). In this Coda template, you simply select multiple predecessor tasks in this column.
Step 2: Enter Optimistic, Most Likely, and Pessimistic durations.
table, you'll see the Optimistic, Most Likely, and Pessimistic columns. These are your best estimates for the minimum, average, and max durations that the given task will take. These are hard-coded numbers (hence the blue font color). The Duration column is automatically calculated based on what you enter for these three columns.
Step 3: Enter project start date.
The final piece of data needed in this critical path method template is the project start or kickoff date. At the very top of the
page, you'll see a date picker which you can edit. When you edit this start date, the start and end dates will automatically re-calculate in the
Step 4: View a timeline or Gantt chart of your project tasks.
If you scroll down on the
page, you'll see a timeline or Gantt view of your tasks table. This chart gives you a visual representation of your project tasks as well as those tasks' predecessor(s) and successor(s). When you make a change in the main
table, the timeline view adjusts automatically. All tasks highlighted in red are on your project's critical path. This also means there's no slack time for that task (amount of time the task can be delayed past its earliest start or earliest finish without delaying the project).
Critical path method template FAQs.
What is a Gantt chart?
A Gantt chart is a visual representation of a project timeline. Each item in a Gantt chart appears as a bar that spans a series of dates. Gantt charts are used in project management to visualize the entirety of a project in a clear flow chart.
How do you write a critical path?
To write a critical path, list out all tasks involved with a project, define their relationships to each other, and how long you expect each task to take. Organize all this data into one chart and identify the string of dependent tasks that take the longest. This is your critical path because it determines how long the project will take.
What does a critical path chart show?
A critical path chart shows the series of tasks that control how long a project will take to complete.
What is the difference between critical path and project schedule?
A critical path is the series of tasks that determine how long a project will take. A project schedule is a timeline for all tasks, meetings, communications, and milestones that make up the entirety of a project, not just the most important tasks. Both are vital parts of a larger project plan.