“If you don’t have time for the small things, you won’t have time for the big things.” — Richard Branson
How stressful it is to wake up everyday to long to-do lists that somehow seem to never get shorter? That is the reality of a lot of business owners that I know. With fires to put out in every corner, the day-to-day hustle of business, plans and intentions vanish. Before you know it, the only thing left is a to-do lists that is longer than the seven-mile bridge.
That is what happened to the US Navy! In the 1950s, the US Navy’s Fleet Ballistic Missile (Polaris) Program was behind schedule and their to-do list did not help. Instead, they divided the project into tasks, organized in the proper sequence of importance and dependencies, estimated the completion time of each task to obtain a clear picture of the entire project and created a critical path to completion. At the same time, the chemical company EI DuPont de Nemours was experiencing delays in its plant turnarounds and came up with an answer like the Polaris Program.
Applied to business, the critical path methodology becomes a comprehensive process for determining a business future and how you can best achieve your goal. It audits the business powers and explicitly articulates the business’ objectives, the critical actions, timelines, and resources required to achieve them.
For more than 20 years, Altima Business has applied this method to help small businesses slay. Follow these steps to deploy it in your company:
Identify the critical tasks
This is the first pitfall on your to-do list. It does not distinguish what is critical from what is not and pushes you to take care of fires, creating an endless string of urgencies. Instead identify the main objectives that will advance your company. Often entrepreneurs would excessively focus on activities within their comfort zone regardless on their impact on the desired outcome. For example, developing features for an early stage product that are not deal breakers for the customers rather than releasing the new product.
Once the most important tasks are identified, then you can start breaking down into smaller chunks of work.
Talking about Microsoft, Bill Gates said that it’s all about decision making — “Don’t make the same decision twice. Spend time and thought to make a solid decision the first time so that you don’t revisit the issue unnecessarily.”
Some tasks will depend on the completion of others. To identify the correct sequence, ask yourself these three questions for each activity on your list:
- Which task should take place before this task happens?
- Which tasks should be finished at the same time as this task?
- Which tasks should happen right after this task?
Estimate completion time
To-do lists fall short in accounting for time. When you have a long string of a, b, c, d, etc. tasks, you cannot accomplish them all and the leftover gets roll over and push out in hope of better days. Rather, using past experience or best guess, estimate the time required to complete each task. You can also apply the 3-point estimation method with best-case estimate, most likely to happen and worst-case estimate, weighing on each one them as you feel most comfortable.
- a = the best-case estimate
- m = the most likely estimate
- b = the worst-case estimate
To put more weight on the most likely value: E = (a + 4m + b) / 6
To share weight equally: E = (a + m + b)/3
Estimate the resources
Now that you have an idea what the workflow looks like, check the resources needed to complete each task and complete a preliminary budget. Do you need more staff? Does it require an additional location or a new skill? Based on the results, you may need to rearrange the sequence of the work breakdown.
Identify the critical path
Drawing a visual representation of your workflow will help you see which path is the shortest: simply add the completion time, from start to finish, and select the option that will match best the outcome.
Execute and measure progress
As you execute your plan, you will learn the actual completion times and resources used. Update your diagram as new information emerges, to have a more realistic view of your progress, able to track in real time if you are on point or falling behind. You may also recalculate a different critical path if necessary.
Entrepreneurship can be a bit messy. Better than a to-do list, a critical path will align business owners and the realization of their goals. And ultimately, their extraordinary results will benefit everyone, creating jobs and our communities.