Go for a Ride on the Critical Path

By Mike Aucoin

My wife and I used to be avid cyclists (before the kids came along, that is). I learned an important project management lesson from my time in the saddle, particularly on those days when we had to fight a headwind. Those days occur all too often when cycling... and in project management too.

In our cycling prime, we enjoyed taking a few long rides, including a 150-mile tour over a weekend. Even if you have trained well, a ride of this distance into a headwind will trash you physically and emotionally. The key to a ride like this is to take turns being tired.

Cyclists do this by "drafting" off each other. To draft, one cyclist - the "workhorse" - takes a lead position and the other follows as closely as possible. The lead rider creates a ram effect through the air. This effect greatly reduces the wind resistance for the follower, enabling him or her to keep a steady cadence without having to work hard.

Now one cannot withstand being the workhorse for long in a stout headwind, and soon it will be time to switch places. The follower has been able to rest for a while and is then ready to take a turn fighting the headwind. The technique of drafting allows the two riders to travel considerably faster and with less overall effort than if they both had to fight the headwind the entire time. This is a technique that has a beneficial analog in project management too, especially for work on the critical path - I call it critical path drafting.

When projects take many months to complete, the critical path is a tough place to be all the time. There is a lot of stress and longer hours, and the position puts you under the gun to perform. The problem is that we often place our experts or most valuable talent on critical path tasks throughout much of the project; in the process, we risk burning them out.

Take a lesson from cycling and try organizing task assignments to rotate the individuals who are on the critical path at any given time. After an individual completes the task on the critical path, he or she can take a break by working on tasks with less urgency at a pace that can be sustained easily.

Not every project lends itself to using this technique. There are the pedal-to-the-metal projects that last only a few weeks, and require everyone to work like crazy until the work is done. A second group consists of projects that can operate at a steady pace over the duration of the schedule.

The third group includes projects that require an aggressive schedule that must be sustained for a relatively long time, at least several months. These projects carry the greatest threat for burning out people, and thus are the best candidates for critical path drafting.

When planning and implementing a system for critical path drafting, consider these principles:
  • Keep the duration manageable. After more than a few weeks of being the critical path workhorse, it's hard for anyone to keep up the effort.

  • Let the workhorse focus. In addition to having to pedal hard, the workhorse has to concentrate on being very efficient and aerodynamic. Take away distractions as much as possible.

  • Use stars judiciously. Consider assigning the experts and stars to specific tasks that are the most crucial to success.

  • Give the workhorse time off. When individuals complete their critical path tasks, give them some down time.

  • Don't forget the support. Cyclists depend on the crews that provide support - make sure your team has plenty of sustenance for the ride, including the right tools, good processes, and emotional encouragement.

  • Enjoy the rest stops. It is important for the entire team to take breaks together - to celebrate the milestones already accomplished and to encourage one another for the road ahead.
By following this simple technique for critical path drafting, you can ensure that your project team members will stay fresh for the long haul, so those long hours in the saddle won't seem like such a pain in the... well, you know.

This column originally appeared in the Successful Project Management newsletter, April, 2000, p. 7. ©Copyright 2000, Management Concepts, Inc.

©Copyright 2000 B. Michael Aucoin. Published on ProjectConnections by permission.

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