You’ve read and heard it so many times: “Efficient project planning is vital for your project’s success.” However, when you’re dealing with a complex project, building an effective project schedule may be really hard, to say the least. You have to first create a long list of tasks that should be completed to deliver the project, then assign team members to these tasks and also make sure you pay special attention to tasks that are critical for project success. Very often, identifying the tasks that need special attention turns out to be the trickiest part of the planning job. Another big challenge may be to differentiate between the tasks that should be completed first and assignments that can be delayed without delaying the whole project. Are you familiar with this problem? If yes, then you should be familiar with its consequences. When you cannot identify the most important tasks, you’ll end up focusing on the wrong parts of your project work. While you’re busy with things that are less important, critical tasks will be missed, and your project will be late. Project delays may need budget extensions. Your stakeholders may be unhappy about that. I have met many project managers who have faced these difficulties, so if you’re finding it tough to tell what’s important on a project, you’re not alone. I also have heard a lot of stories of how project leaders managed to overcome such problems. This is the first post in a series that consolidates what I learned from my colleagues and my own experience in project planning. Diagnosis: See the Warning Signs To cure a disease, you should first analyze the patient’s current condition. The problem of telling what’s important on a project has distinct symptoms. Here are some of them: • You’re not confident in determining which tasks should be completed first and which can wait a little longer. • You don’t know which tasks you need to prioritize, and you keep changing priorities on the go. • Your team is unsure about what tasks they should be working on and complete first, so they try to do everything simultaneously. This leads to unproductive multitasking and a lot of stress in the group. • You don't know the external dependencies that affect work on your project. • Parts of your project get delayed, and this jeopardizes your project’s success. Cure: Mix Standard Methods with Unconventional Approaches There are standard project management methodologies to define the most important tasks. One of them, critical path analysis (CPA), is a popular method and a powerful tool that helps you schedule and manage complex projects. Building a critical path will help you identify the tasks that should be completed on time and the ones that you can delay without jeopardizing or delaying the whole project. CPA also allows you to identify the minimum length of time needed to complete a project. The path acts as the basis for schedule preparation and resource planning. When managing a project, it allows you to monitor the progress toward meeting the deadlines. It helps you to see where remedial action needs to be taken to get a project back on course. Another benefit of using CPA within the planning process is to help you develop and better understand the constraints and dependencies in your project. Critical Path Analysis usually is used together with a Gantt chart, as this chart clearly visualizes your project schedule. To simplify and energize the planning process, you can leverage the latest project management technologies that will help you build your critical path and create a structured plan. Software applications that have Gantt charts with task dependencies can be extremely useful in defining clear task sequences. They also will save you time when you need to adjust your schedule due to changes in the project. However helpful the traditional critical path method may be in theory, applying it in practice may involve quite a few challenges. These can be only dealt with when you employ your creative thinking and use some unconventional approaches. Read my next post to find out how this can be done on your project. Meanwhile, if you have interesting stories of how you managed to overcome your difficulties in planning a project, I encourage you to share them in the comments below.