MS Project's critical path: what it is and how to use it

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 8 July 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Understanding the steps that are key in each and every project you complete is essential, playing a fundamental role in setting you up for a greater level of success later on. Many companies use software such as MS Project for this purpose but don't understand how to discover the most important tasks and make the most of them. Making use of MS Project's critical path features can help make project management more efficient. In this article, we discuss what the critical path features are, how you use them in project management and why they're important.

What is MS Project's critical path?

The MS Project's critical path features refer to the use of Gantt charts throughout MS Project, and the individual tasks that shift the timescale of the entire project backwards or forwards. Where some individual tasks are aside from the completion of the overall project within a set timeframe, the critical path refers to the tasks whose completion are a necessity for the achievement of specific deadlines. Other tasks benefit the quality of the project, but don't affect the time in which a project reaches completion.

Critical path features use Gantt charts intelligently, filtering out the fringe tasks and narrowing down the project to the critical tasks. These tasks follow one coherent Gantt chart throughout, clearly setting out the route companies follow when increasing the speed of their project and therefore, the end date of the overall set of tasks. Critical path features are relatively simple but incredibly useful in a project management scenario.

Related: What is critical path analysis?

How to view MS Project's critical paths in a master project

Critical path is a relatively simple set of features, and implementing it provides a significant benefit for your project. This means that learning a critical path and implementing it in your work is essential as a modern project manager running their important projects through the MS Project software. Learn more about how you use critical path features step-by-step, improving your work in the long term:

1. Ensure your project is the right type

The following instructions have the use of a master project in mind. This means that the instructions within are applicable for specific projects encompassing additional projects within them. This means that in the event that you operate a simpler project with relatively few steps that are simple within it, the following list of instructions is not relevant for your project. However, the steps for converting a standard project's critical path into a Gantt chart is simple, thus follows in the next paragraph.

Simply choose 'View' from the top menu bar, then select 'Gantt Chart' to see all the steps in your project in a Gantt chart view. Whilst this shows a Gantt chart of the necessary tasks, it does not entail the specific critical tasks for the successful completion of a project. Choose 'Format' and select the 'Critical Tasks' check box, which eliminates all extraneous tasks and leaves a simple view of the critical path of the project. Whilst the alternative view shows a view of the critical path, it is excessive for simple projects like this.

Related: Project management system: definition and advantages

2. Enter the options menu

Open the 'File' tab and then select Options. Although there are other routes to discovering the critical path, this is the fastest route. Furthermore, entering the options menu provides an overview of extra options for examination of your Gantt charts and project overview. You gain a cohesive perspective of the work you and your team complete going forwards with a selection of tools for manipulation and better examination. Starting from the Options menu seems obvious, but it is the best route to making the most of the critical path.

3. Choose Schedule and scroll to 'Calculation options for this project'

After you're in the options menu, select the 'Schedule' options. This opens up a wide range of options for your use, providing full control over the scheduling tools for your project. Scheduling is integral in any project management environment and is a fundamental part of ensuring that your work achieves the necessary standards at the right time. Once you're in the schedule settings, scroll to the 'Calculation options for this project' part of the menu.

This section sets out a range of different options pertaining to calculating the time your project takes throughout its completion and the resources necessary in keeping up with the given calculations. These scheduling options provide a variety of views of the project, ranging from completing each and every individual task to targeting exclusively critical path tasks as a 'fastest route' to the completion of the work in question.

4. Select 'Inserted projects are calculated like summary tasks' box

As the final step in the process of viewing the critical task in a master project, select the 'Inserted projects are calculated like summary tasks' box. This means that the sub-projects within your master project are part of the Gantt chart of the critical path. They're an essential part of the master project, thus accounting for a critical path without full utilisation of sub-projects is missing out on key information that is essential to a successful route forwards.

Related: 6 Microsoft Office skills to include on a CV (with tips)

The benefits of using critical path

The critical path is a very important tool in the project management process. This is due to a combination of different factors, including the complexity of projects with many different stages which may not be a key part of the completion time of the project. Below are some of the key benefits of using critical path and the difference it makes to project delivery in the long term:

Planning ahead

As with all Gantt charts, using critical path tools enables companies to plan in advance for more difficult times of business. With a better idea of exactly what tasks are around the corner and the kinds of resources necessary for their use, companies plan out each and every step of their project completion process in a detailed manner. This avoids being caught short-handed at any stage in the project in question.

Speed up outcomes

Understanding the critical path is an essential part of completing any given project. This is because individual tasks with a position on the critical path are those that affect the overall process of the project. Quickly completing critical path tasks speeds up the project, where a single task in the critical path stalling prevents the next key step from taking place. Understanding the critical path provides an opportunity for sending resources to the critical path and focusing on extraneous tasks as and when possible, boosting project efficiency.

Related: What are agile methodologies in project management?

Ease of conveying information

Conveying information for members of staff when you display the critical path is far simpler. By comparing and contrasting a Gantt chart with the critical path exclusively displayed in comparison to a complete Gantt chart, staff get a better idea of where to emphasise their work and get the relevant work done quickly. This is more beneficial in the case that performance-related bonuses are present, as employees work even harder for increasing income.

Related: Project manager requirements (with duties and skills)

Project's critical path for career development

If you're looking to develop your project management skills and step up to a higher role, then consider improving your understanding of Project's critical path. Looking for ways to implement this in your current responsibilities and highlight it on your CV can demonstrate to potential or current employers that you can identify priority tasks and apply the correct action to complete these on time and on budget.

Implementing the critical path tools can also help when seeking to change career or move to a different position. This necessitates several steps and leaps along the way, meaning a critical path emerges of necessary tasks before making the transition to your new career and preference of industry. Create a Gantt chart in MS Project regarding the steps you take in your transition. Make flow charts and establish which steps are essential to guide you through the change and focus your efforts in the right area.

Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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