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Critical Chain Project Management – Agile’s Missing Link

12% of the money invested into projects is lost to poor planning. If project delays are holding you back, then implementing a project management system can help your team get more things done and, ultimately, boost your company’s bottom line. 

But projects are hardly simple.

Rather than tackling tasks one at a time, teams usually work on several deliverables at the same time in order to complete various project components on schedule. However, some tasks can’t begin until others are completed, and in this way, one single holdup (referred to as a dependency) can cause a bottleneck – and completely derail your entire project. 

Without a system to organize and manage all those interconnected tasks, predicting how much time is needed to complete the project is difficult. 

That’s where critical chain project management can help.

Implementing critical chain project management (CCPM) planning helps teams pinpoint and resolve chokepoints in processes, and allocate resources more effectively to complete those tasks.

This article will cover how to apply the CCPM process to your agile workflow, so you can reap the benefits of better quality outcomes and fewer delays. 

What Is Critical Chain Project Management?

Critical chain project management (CCPM) helps teams to identify task and resource dependencies so that they can complete projects faster. Many agile teams fail to hit their project deadlines.

In fact, over 50% of projects suffer from scope creep, meaning teams fail to plan for additional requirements beyond the original goals. 

CCPM adds flexibility to any agile workflow by maximizing limited resources and providing buffers to avoid delays and uncertainties. 

Let’s take a look at an example.

A SaaS company plans to introduce a new feature to its app. This requires a sequence of tasks that must be completed in sequential order by different parties to get the final initiative completed. 

Here’s what that might look like: 

  • Conduct an initial meeting 
  • Write the specifications for the new feature 
  • Design the UX/UI design 
  • Code the feature 
  • Release the beta feature 
  • Make improvements based on feedback 
  • Write tutorials for users 
  • Publish and promote the new features 
  • Write press releases and advertise the app 

Looking at this list of tasks, it’s clear that some tasks are dependent on others. For instance, you can’t advertise and publish without first designing or coding the feature. That said, you can work on some tasks independently, such as writing the tutorials, while the feature is in the beta test phase. 

If you want to use the critical chain project method, it will look something like this: 

critical chain project method

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Notice how the diagram organizes tasks by serial and parallel tasks. The serial tasks show the sequence of tasks that must be done in sequential order. Parallel tasks are shown above and below, any of which can be done simultaneously. 

As a project manager or leader of your team, you’ll need to examine your resources and allocate them effectively to determine the deadlines. 

For instance, if you’ve got a team of two programmers, and one is on vacation, you’ll need to plan the expected deadlines appropriately. 

In this scenario, you may need the following resources: 

  • Project manager 
  • Software engineer or developer 
  • PR manager 
  • Copywriter 
  • QA team 
  • Social media manager 
  • Tools – development tools for coding, design tools to create prototypes, marketing platforms to advertise, and project management software 

Lastly, the critical chain project management method places buffer time to account for any unforeseen circumstances

Notice the project buffer of 7 days and feeder buffer of 3 days in the diagram above. 

The Critical Chain vs. The Critical Path

Critical chain and critical path project management methods are very similar, except the critical chain method prioritizes resource constraints and dependencies. 

The critical path method works by identifying the critical path, which is a string of the most important sequence of tasks required to finish a project. This allows teams to separate high-priority versus low-priority tasks. Any tasks that aren’t part of the critical path will be placed into a lower priority. 

Here’s what a critical path would look like for a blog post:

critical path for a blog post

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Notice how only the tasks that are absolutely necessary for project completion are included in the critical path. Designing blog visuals and animations may be helpful, but they aren’t mission-critical tasks

You can see there are many buffer times included in the critical path methodology. The critical chain method places various buffers throughout the project timeline. Since there are so many unknown variables at play, this method adds a buffer to mitigate risks that can derail the project timeline. 

To summarize the differences between the two, we’ve put together a table. 

Critical Path Critical Chain 
PriorityFocuses on identifying the string of tasks that take the longest to complete and organize other project activities around it Focuses on managing the dependencies and resource constraints to build a realistic timeframe 
ResourcesAssumes that resources are always available Focuses on managing limited resources, so they can be used most effectively 
BufferDoesn’t include specific buffer times, leaving no room for error Adds multiple points of buffer time including for the entire project, resources and feeding buffer
MultitaskingAllows for multitaskingEncourages focusing on doing one task at a time
DeadlinesSuccess is measured by whether deadlines for individual tasks were metSuccess is measured based on how quickly you’re consuming your buffers 

Of the two, the critical chain is more flexible and modifies some of the flaws that exist with the critical path methodology. 

It mitigates inefficiencies by avoiding task switching (where employees can be less efficient than focusing on a single task at a time) and Parkinson’s Law (where team members can procrastinate and do the bare minimum to hit the deadline). 

The Components of a Critical Chain

The critical chain methodology has three components: the critical path, the feeding chain, and resource buffers

#1: The Critical Path

The critical path is a list of all mission-critical tasks that are absolutely necessary to get the job done. They hold dependencies that must be done in a specific order. 

If you were to bake the cake, you’d have to follow a sequence of steps. The critical path is all of the red items necessary for the cake to be completed. 

critical path and parallel activities

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#2: The Feeding Chain

The feeding chain is a list of secondary tasks that run alongside the critical path. Eventually, the feeding chains merge with the critical path. 

The feeding chain must run at the same time at the critical path to avoid delays. 

the feeding chain running alongside the critical path

In this diagram, all the gray boxes are the feed chain. 

Think of a simple project, like cooking a Thanksgiving Dinner. While the turkey is in the oven, you can focus on whipping up the side dishes, such as mashed potatoes and stuffing. 

#3: The Resource Buffers

Resource buffers are resources that are set aside for unexpected occurrences. For example, additional contractors may need to be staffed for a special project. In this case, you may have a small network of contractors that keep on hand, but outside of your payroll, in the event that unexpected scope creep occurs. 

Let’s say a client makes a last-minute adjustment to your web design project. Accounting for current work hours, you’ll need to quickly bring on board a part-time contractor to complete the task. 

5 Steps to Use the Critical Chain Project Management Process

If you’re looking to implement the CCPM process into your workflow, try these five steps to get you started. 

We’ll be demonstrating examples of how to implement this methodology with Atarim for resource planning, dividing projects into multiple steps, tracking time, making better estimates, and keeping everyone focused. 

#1: Identify the Critical Path First

Think of the critical path as the spinal cord to your project. Everything should revolve around the critical path. Here’s how you can find the critical path to build your CCPM:

1. List activities: List all tasks required to produce deliverables. 

List all tasks required to produce deliverables

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2. Identify dependencies: Determine the tasks that are dependent on each other. 

3. Create a network diagram: Turn the list into a flowchart that displays the sequential order of the activities. Create arrows to highlight those task dependencies. 

Now you should have a rough estimate of where each task should be placed based on the start and end date. You can align the parallel tasks with the serial tasks to maximize efficiency. 

network diagram

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#2: Determine the Exact Amount of Resources Your Project Requires

Next, you want to estimate the duration of each task. You can use previous project data, make an educated guess, or use industry-standard metrics. 

estimate the duration of each task

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The resources may refer to the actual tools or software your team needs to create the end result, the amount of time, and the specific workers needed to complete each task. 

When evaluating your resources, you want to think of other possible constraints, such as: 

  • Market constraints. Not enough demand in the market compared to the amount you can produce 
  • Material constraints. Shortage of inputs or raw materials 
  • Policy constraints. Regulations or organization policies that affect resources, such as banning overtime work 

This helps to mitigate project risks, ensuring no stone is left unturned.

► With Atarim, you can create stages, giving each phase of the project a name and due date. 

creating a CCPM workflow in Atarim

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Each stage can be in a sequential order, which serves as a dependency. Once you’ve added the string of tasks, you’ll have created a CCPM workflow. 

creating a dependency

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#3: Place Your Buffers

Buffers help to ensure that you guarantee the project is finished on or before the projected deadline with a high probability

The deadline you’ve set in the last step is referred to as the 50 percent confidence interval without buffer. Essentially, your goal is to add the following buffers in the right spots

  • Project buffer: time added to the end of all project activities to account for delays. 
  • Feeding buffer: time buffer added to non-critical tasks located on the critical path, ensuring that your team has the necessary inputs and resources to start on time. 
  • Resource buffer: time buffer to account for resource limitations, so you’re able to get the resources when needed.
placing buffers

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In this diagram, notice that a project buffer is added at the end, while feeding buffers are added at the connection points where they join the critical chain. 

#4: Keep Team Members Focused

As a project manager, it’s your job to ensure all team members stay on schedule. With the CCPM model, the tight duration estimates with single tasks assigned to each person help to eliminate multitasking. 

Also, having dependencies where others are reliant on your completion will prevent Parkinson’s Law, where work expands to fill up the time allotted, or student’s syndrome, where workers procrastinate on starting new tasks. 

Instead, team members will work to finish the chain of tasks as fast as possible. 

For instance, Atarim makes it easy for everyone to stay on task. The Tasks inbox is where the worker can see all their tasks across all assets. 

task inbox

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By clicking on each task, it will link directly to the live website – and the specific area of the website that needs to be addressed. Also, the dashboard shows exactly how many pending urgent tasks there are. 

#5: Oversee The Project

Once you’ve built your visual diagram, time frames, and buffers, you’re ready to write your project plan. At this stage you should monitor your resources, and reallocate time, labor, or tools as necessary. 

Using the Kanban board on Atarim, you can manage the flow of work. This is based on the just-in-time production principle, which focuses on balancing demand with the available resources. 

Kanban board in Atarim

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Conclusion – Get the Most Out of Critical Chain With Atarim 

Prioritizing the resources needed to complete a project helps project managers build a process that is easier to manage. If you plan your projects properly, you will never miss your deadlines because you’ll put down enough time buffers for any problems or delays along the way.

However, the real power of this approach comes when you’ve got the right platform behind you. 

Atarim is the leading visual collaboration platform trusted by 13,000+ agencies worldwide (web dev, design, and beyond), supporting project delivery for 1,200,000+ of their clients. We have redefined how they work with their clients and team, eliminating client delays and enjoying the ability to deliver projects in weeks instead of months. 

Agencies, developers, and project managers use Atarim to eliminate the need to rely on guesswork and endless back-and-forth email communication, beyond collaboration also powering reporting, time tracking, work summaries and more. 

Atarim gives you everything you need to build out visual timelines for CCPM, and assign them to the right people. From simple design projects to managing your client’s live websites, Atarim helps you increase work velocity and improve collaboration – empowering your team to get more done

Try Atarim for free, and leverage the CCPM approach to allow you to finish more projects on time, right now.

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