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The Critical Path for Extreme Project Management
by: Shaun Hasan Ajani
The Extreme Project Manager (EPM) stays at a high level, and understands the big picture, at the same time being able to call the shots like a military commander. However, there are certain things, which can affect the general schedule, and the EPM must be aware of them at a relatively acute level. Particularly, I am referring to Critical Path Method (CPM) and Project Evaluation Review Technique (PERT). The EPM will use these analyses in a slightly different way to stay at a certain level.

Walk the Path

I have faint memories of hearing about CPM and PERT when I was a kid, many years ago. So what are such old ideas doing in the EPM topic? I could say that these are very important methods that every Project manager should know.

But then how would I be any different? And as a Project Manager, you probably know CMP and PERT well anyhow… Right? Well, I will make it worth it for you. In a truly EPM fashion, we will hit on CPM and PERT, in a cursory and a slightly different way, where you can use it just enough to give you some kind of a handle in keeping an eye on scheduling.

CPM lets you see the sequence of events of all the tasks, and the time required. It also shows the earliest finish, earliest start, latest finish, and latest start estimates, so you can see the slack in each of these tasks. You need to know the slack, because if you are seeing a sequence of events, then you are also seeing the dependencies of each of these tasks.

Hence, if you are aware of the slack, then you can get a better idea of the adherence to schedule your project is enjoying. As an EPM, here is a way I found to make this simple: When you make the CPM, do not use sub-tasks. Try and stick to summary tasks. However, unlike the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS), where we use a similar method, you may have to use some of your sub-tasks, depending on the time to completion of that task. For example, if a sub-task takes a long time to complete, and has many dependencies, use it in the CPM.

Look on the Bright Side

Yes, even Project Managers are optimistic, especially EPM’s. Although, working with PERT, you have to be both, optimistic and pessimistic. Here is what I mean. Like CPM and WBS, PERT also involves the breaking down of the project into tasks. You then must divide the tasks into three schedule categories, most optimistic finish estimate, and most pessimistic finish estimate, and most likely.

Lets say the task of putting the stealth paint on your time machine is most likely going to take three weeks. You must also then consider what is the longest it will take, and what is the shortest amount of time it will take to apply that paint. For example, five weeks and two weeks, respectively.

Here is the advantage of this method in EPM. You can manipulate your timelines effectively. If you feel that the original schedule is running a bit thin, and the overall project forecast was too optimistic, then you can give the pessimistic estimate a little more weight. For example, in this case, you can assign the timeline of six weeks to the paint job. Then, in the final PERT analysis, you will see the results skewed to a longer forecast.

Here is how an EPM can use the information from PERT analysis. As the project stakeholders are more edgy about technical tasks running over schedule (and rightly so), due to more chances of complications, a project overshooting its schedule due to a paint job will be a lot less painful to the stakeholders. This will allow you to give a lot less explanations, and use your time wisely to deliver the project on time. Of course, as a professional Project Manager, you know that if your project is really in trouble, do not use this technique to hide from reality.

Like I mentioned, you probably know CPM and PERT well. However, if you do not, I encourage you to seek it out and use it in your projects. There are many books and white papers written on it. If you are a traditional Project Manager, you can use these methods to tell you other important factors in your tasks as well. For example, if you notice the PERT estimates to be off by greater margins, then you must take a closer look at the task, as it is indicating greater risk, then a task that has a smaller spread.

Keep at a high level, and trust your team leads, by delegating the more specific analysis to them. And always remember, if you are an EPM, then use all this information to always keep the ultimate goal of the client, as your most fundamental requirement.

Shaun H. Ajani is the author of books "Extreme Project Management". He has been published in many national and international magazines. Shaun has worked with aviation, IT, retail, HR, finance, education, and training industries, in companies like Motorola, Dollar Stores, Nation Gifts, Code Factory, Washington Mutual, Boise Cascade, and Sears. Shaun Ajani consults as a Certified Project Manager in Chicago at Spherion.


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