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Volume 10, Issue 38;   September 22, 2010: The Politics of the Critical Path: I

The Politics of the Critical Path: I

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

The Critical Path of a project or activity is the sequence of dependent tasks that determine the earliest completion date of the effort. If you're responsible for one of these tasks, you live in a unique political environment.
A section of the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston in 2008

A section of the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston in 2008. This parkway was constructed above Interstate 93, which passes under Boston in a network of tunnels that comprise part of a project that was known as the Big Dig. The contractor responsible for construction near the area pictured was Jay M. Cashman Inc., which depended on information supplied by the Big Dig's management company, a partnership of Bechtel Corp. of San Francisco, and Parsons Brinckerhoff of New York. It is now known that prior to Cashman submitting its bid, Bechtel had been remiss in delivering necessary site information to Cashman, omitting important items and delivering other items late. Cashman went ahead anyway, and submitted a winning bid of $218 million. Before and during construction, Bechtel delivered additional information that caused Cashman to have to revise its plans numerous times and resulted in overruns of more than 60%. For the full story see the investigative report by the Boston Globe. Photo courtesy The Norman B. Leventhal Walk to the Sea.

When you're responsible for a task in the critical path of an effort, you can be subject to scrutiny and pressure that others are not. Preparing yourself for this environment helps in two ways. First, you'll perform better. More important though, political operators are more likely to leave you alone if they believe that you're prepared and able to deal with political tactics. So let's get prepared.

There are different ways to be in the critical path. Your task can be waiting, unable to begin or suspended, because it depends on other tasks not yet complete, or is waiting for something else not yet available. Or it can be already completed, having delivered something essential to another task that is in the critical path. These different states give rise to different politics.

In this issue, we examine what happens when a task is waiting for a resource, information, or a critical piece of infrastructure. In three weeks, we'll look at what can happen to completed tasks.

A task might be in a wait state for a variety of reasons. Some examples:

  • It depends on a deliverable from a previous task, and that task isn't yet complete
  • It needs the assistance of someone who isn't yet available
  • It needs some other unavailable resource
  • It needs information from a previous task, or a vendor, and that information isn't available.

Even if the task is unable to begin work, it's susceptible to pressure tactics.

Waiting for a deliverable or for information
If the task needs a deliverable from another task, or information not yet available, you might hear, "Assuming that they will give you result X, can't you start building from there? Then if they give you something different, you can always change it."
Cooperating is risky unless the item in question is absolutely predictable. Usually it's not predictable — it might be very different from what was expected. If that happens, "you can always change it" could become a very expensive and time-consuming strategy.
Waiting for people or access to resources
If lack of access Even if a task is
unable to begin work,
it's susceptible to
pressure tactics
to specific resources is the issue, political pressure usually takes the form of insistence on the equivalence of some alternate resource: "Use this/him/her instead." Rarely are the substitutes actually sufficient.
Accepting the substitute is usually unwise. If the substitute is a less experienced or less skilled person, the result can actually be negative progress.

To respond to these pressures effectively, demonstrate with plausible projections the real risks of using the suggested tactics. Then request appropriate contingency reserves to cover those risks. The size of those reserves might not persuade those exerting pressure to relent, but you will have achieved some level of political protection by making a solid case for a more prudent course.

In three weeks, we'll examine the fate of tasks that are already complete. Go to top Top  Next issue: Management Debt: I  Next Issue

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