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  • Philip Jalufka

Pave a critical path to success.

Would you head out on a road trip without first mapping out the route? Would you build a home without a blueprint? You might be a risk-taker who does exactly this. But in business, you’d better have a detailed plan to guide you every step of the way. When you take the time to pave a critical path to success, you avoid detours, delays, and dead ends. You should identify multiple courses of action (contingency plans) to overcome challenges which should then result in a course correction. And that adds up to achieving your goals in the most efficient manner possible.

What is a critical path?

The Critical Path Method is a detailed plan that identifies each milestone and functional area required to complete a task and assigns the person responsible for completing that action. It was developed by the U.S. Navy and DuPont in 1957 to keep projects on track. This organization and management method never becomes obsolete. In fact, with the myriad of details we’re all juggling these days, it’s more important than ever to adhere to a critical path system.

To develop this plan, the project manager breaks down the sequence of getting from Point A (where you are now) to Point B (the end of this path). You also need to be aware of where you came from, never forgetting what paved the way for this path’s destination (remember the “Why”). Once you’ve built out the steps required, you determine how long each step will take to get from that point to the next destination. That’s your roadmap.

A strong critical path also plans for obstacles. Talk to your team about the challenges they envision and build contingency plans to combat them. These “What ifs” show that you’ve thoroughly considered each direction and the solution for managing .

Before taking your course of action, make sure you’ve got the right idea. Pass your plan by other subject matter experts—people who can bring their knowledge and a different perspective. Get their take and then revisit your plan to make valuable adjustments. I often say, “we’ve got to flex”—moving with agility to an alternate course of action.

When you follow this meticulous planning process, you can adapt swiftly and smoothly to changes—saving time, labor, and the cost of mistakes. The path to a critical path presents predictability and consistency. All stakeholders know what to do when an obstacle throws the plan off course, because that contingency was accounted for in the critical path. When this happens, you have the ability to take action that was approved, avoiding the delay that comes from chasing down someone in authority to approve the move. People sleep better at night with predictability and consistency.

Don’t get painted into a corner

Consider this example. You decide to paint a room in your house. Your husband, wife, or partner asks, “how long will it take?”

You look around the room, taking in the amount of wall coverage, and say, “oh, about half a day.”

“How much will it cost?”

You’re thinking about the last time you looked at the price of paint. You mentally calculate that the job will take 2 gallons and a few other things, like a roller and tray. “About a hundred bucks.”

Well, guess what? You’ve now committed to getting it done and in that timeframe and price.

No problem?

Wait. You didn’t break down the steps it’s going to take you to paint the room before offering that estimate.

Here’s how the project goes down. You go to the store to get paint samples. Apply each sample to the wall. Agonize over which one you want. By the way, you didn’t budget for the cost of paint samples, which came to $15. And the extra trip used up an hour of your half-day time plan.

[Here’s a little tip: When you’re at the paint store, don’t bring home more than 3 samples; the more you test, the longer the decision will take.]

Once the paint choice is made, go back to the store and buy the paint. At $32 per gallon, you pay $64 for the paint. So far, your investment of $79 (paint and samples), still under your projected $100 expense.

Did you first do a careful estimate of how much paint you’re going to need? If not, you’re just guessing, and that could lead to another trip to buy more paint. Remember, the clock is ticking and there’s someone at home holding you accountable for your “half a day” commitment—yes, you offered it as an estimate but it was heard as a promise. Believe me. I know.

Next, you assumed you had enough painter’s tape to mask off the trim. But, it turns out that one of the kids used the tape for a school project. Now, because you didn’t take the time to inventory your materials, you have yet another trip to the store, and you spend another $9 and another hour. Your expenses are now at $88, still under budget.

Anyone who has ever painted a room knows that the prep work often takes longer than the actual painting. Did you factor in time to move out the furniture and patch any holes in the walls? Once you spackle a hole, you have to allow time for it to dry before painting over the repaired area.

Meanwhile, that other person who is waiting for the job to be done is watching the clock and measuring your results against your “promise”. Your reputation is at stake here. You know that if you don’t meet the deadline, you’ll never hear the end of it.

As it happens, you need just one quart more to finish the job because you didn’t account for the fact that you were painting a neutral color over a darker one, requiring 2 coats of paint. When you’re in the aisle of the paint store, you realize a quart just isn’t cost-effective. You buy another gallon so you’ll have extra to use for touch-ups later. You also purchase a new brush to do the cut-ins around the trim, after discovering that your old brush was never adequately cleaned after the last project 2 years ago.

The extra gallon paint ($32) and the brush ($8) put you $28 over your $100 budget. That doesn’t seem like much in terms of dollars, but it’s 28%. What if you were doing a major project for a stakeholder and overlooked certain steps and costs. What if you had a $50,000 budget and ended up with 28% in overruns? How will your client/partner feel when your failure to accurately plan comes at a cost of $14,000?

You’ve probably heard the saying, “When you fail to plan, you plan to fail”.

A critical path prevents failure (or it should, if you’ve accounted for every foreseeable obstacle). Invest time at the very beginning to look closely at what you want to achieve. Remember the “why”—where you came from and what motivates this action. Dissect your ideaS. Envision yourself going through each phase. What do you see yourself doing? How much time does it take? What expenses will you incur along the way?

Word of caution: Don’t trust your initial estimate for time and budget. Put a little cushion on there to accommodate for possible scenarios). This approach documents your course of action, with clear steps for the predictable paths (and, believe me, most major obstacles are predictable to the nth degree). The direction you’ve detailed also creates accountability. You’ve said, “Here’s what we’re going to do and why, who’s going to do it and when, and how we will measure our success.” It’s always better to under-promise and over-deliver than vice versa. With a critical path in place, you will impress rather than disappoint.

Your achievement—regardless of the degree you actually achieved—doesn’t end with the execution of the plan. Go back and do an After Action Review (AAR). What worked? What didn’t? What could have been done better? Use an AAR to learn as well as to document the action. Everyone involved has the opportunity to learn from the experiences and avoid repeating mistakes. The process also supports sustainable succession. As you add or replace team member, the documented AAR establishes built-in continuity.

Involve your stakeholders

Unless you are pursuing a challenge entirely on your own, you need to bring together all the stakeholders and team members who will contribute to the outcome. Discuss the project and the steps. Build the critical path together, which is essential to establishing and maintaining accountability.

When each person is involved in the planning, they embrace the “Why” and that’s absolutely essential in teamwork. They accept their role and its requirements. Taking full ownership is absolutely essential to keep everyone on task.

Casualness causes casualty.

Entrepreneurs have a tendency to shoot from the hip and ad lib their way to goals. By nature, they’re frequently bored with little details as they are more excited by the big picture.

My military education and training instilled in me that there is no room for ad libbing. Every person on the team knows the critical path, inside and out, from start to end. They know their jobs and understand that there is no diverging from the path—not one step. If a task is expected to be completed in 4 minutes, even 10 extra seconds is failure. You just delayed the next person in the chain of events. They have to either work faster to make up for your loss or continue passing along the time gap. Either way, the “mission” is a failure because the objective wasn’t met according to the established milestones.

Yes, we don’t face a combat situation in the workplace. But we ARE working toward achieving the outcome identified in your plan. If you give yourself and your team the leeway to be casual with budgets and timelines, then you contribute to the problems. Remember, casualness causes casualty.

Why do you need a critical path?

A critical path is invaluable for managing any project that involves multiple steps. It’s absolutely critical when that project involves multiple participants. Creating this detailed task sequence delivers mission-critical results:

  • Instill accountability. Every person understands and accepts their role and responsibilities.

  • Prevent delays. You track progress against the established milestones and achieve results with maximum efficiency.

  • Create contingency plans. Analysis allows you to consider potential obstacles and establish alternate paths to respond with agility.

  • Manage the budget. At the outset, you have a clear picture of the costs to be incurred at each step.

  • Improve communication. At any point during the project, you can look at the critical path and know exactly where things are, where you and your team have been and where you’re going.

  • Strengthen teamwork. Your team members are in synch with one another as the project’s goals and steps are detailed from the start.

  • Provide a scorecard. You make expectations crystal clear so you have key performance measures (KPM) to use when analyzing actions and results.

My teams at Legacy International Resort Properties and our asset management company, Legacy Performance Capital, know that we don’t proceed with any project until everyone has reviewed and signed off on the critical path. It’s ingrained in our corporate culture. If you haven’t put this process into your own business, start now.

Business isn’t the only arena where you need a critical path. You should have one every day. When you plan your day, knowing what you want to achieve and why, you will use your time wisely and avoid a lot of mistakes (believe me, I’ve paid THAT price). A “To Do” list isn’t enough. Set up a timeline that holds you (or the others on your list) accountable. The day will come and go. That’s a definite. How you use that time is up to you. Make it happen YOUR way.



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