Ideas, suggestions and general thoughts about project management for development.

Planning Phase

What is the Critical Path in Project Management?

A network diagram is a graphical representation of the sequence of project activities and the dependencies among them. There are two types of network diagrams, activity on arrow (AOA) and activity on node (AON). The most common network diagram uses the AON diagram technique, in which boxes represent activities. The complex and dynamic nature of development projects make this tool especially valuable because it helps the project team identify the potential interactions of project activities that can be easily missed otherwise. The value of the network diagram is that it provides the project team with visibility and control over the project schedule. It also helps determine the total duration of the project and its critical path, or path with the longest duration.
The figure below shows an example of a project network diagram that includes the duration estimates and dependencies; the diagram also shows the dependencies among the activities and how these can form parallel paths.
The Critical Path is the Path A in the network diagram with the longest total duration (100 days). Activities on the critical path cannot be delayed, or the whole project will be delayed, unless the loss of time can be offset somewhere else on the critical path. To find the critical path, add up the duration of the activities for each possible path through the network, to determine which has the longest total duration. The difference between the longest total duration and the shortest path(s) is the total amount of float or slack for the noncritical path activities.
Float or Slack is the amount of time that an activity or a task in a project network can be delayed without causing a delay to subsequent activities or tasks and the project completion date.
The critical path is in essence the shortest time a project can be completed, even though the critical path is the longest path on the project. It is not the path with the most critical activities or the shortest path on a project network diagram. There are cases in which a network diagram may have two critical paths that have the same total duration.  A benefit of Critical Path Analysis is that it helps identify the minimum length of time needed to complete a project. Where there is a need to accelerate a project, the CPA will help identify which project steps to accelerate and complete the project within the available time.
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Facilitating Brainstorming Sessions

Many development projects have to face situations where the identification of a solution is not always easy. One method to discover good ideas is brainstorming, as the fastest way to produce many potential solutions to a problem. If conducted properly, everyone will feel like their voice has been heard, and feel like they are part of the solution. The simplest reason to hold a brainstorming meeting is to increase the volume of possible ideas. By discussing a problem amongst 5-10 people; in theory, the project manager should be able to obtain a wider array of different ideas much faster; than any one person could on their own.

The quality of the ideas generated will depend largely on how the session was conducted.  A poorly managed session will result in poor ideas. Here are 9 simple steps to help a project manager or a project team member conduct an effective brainstorming session:

  1. Set the tone - Explain how brainstorming works:
    • Everyone must understand that no idea is too outrageous or far-fetched to be considered.
    • Everyone must understand that all ideas will be documented, regardless of their perceived relevance. 
    • There will be a later time to clarify and narrow down the prospective solutions. 
    • Ask the group if anyone does not understand and agree with the above statements. 
  2. Review the problem definition - Ensure that all participants have the same understanding of what they are attempting to solve.
  3. Clarify - the goal or desired outcome of the session; define terms that will be used during the discussion; get participants in the mindset of working towards the same goal.
  4. Give participants some time to independently think of or write down ideas - This step can take 5 minutes to 1 hour. It all depends on the scope of the problem that you are attempting to solve. This is to be independent and silent.
  5. Get a scribe or two - It's easier to facilitate and ensure that you keep control of the meeting if you have someone else writing down people's ideas. This will allow the facilitator to focus on things like body language, group, and individual interactions, etc.
  6. Open up the brainstorm - Have people begin saying their ideas one at a time. This should be done quickly. There is no time for discussion or clarification in this part of the brainstorming session. You can have many rounds to allow new ideas to emerge. Usually, new ideas are generated by another idea.
  7. Write down all the ideas - regardless of perceived relevance. It can be written on sticky notes or a whiteboard, big enough for everyone to see.
  8. Rank favorite ideas - At the end of the session, you could involve participants further by asking them to flesh out the selected ideas, or you might choose to have a follow-up meeting to explore the selections.
  9. Define the next steps - Agree on a timeline and assign responsibilities.  Once the session ends, circulate notes, monitor and give feedback. It's crucial to develop a clear and positive outcome; so that people feel their effort and contribution was worthwhile. When people see that their efforts have resulted in action and change, they will be motivated and keen to help again.

Brainstorming sessions bring people together into a creative process and increases the social nature of the project. As 8-10 people get in a room, if the meeting was conducted properly, they will walk out with a feeling that they are contributing to what they will be working on in the future. It can be a bonding experience; and more importantly, it will get people thinking and communicating with each other about topics relevant to the next few weeks or months ahead.

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