Project Management

The Network Diagram Mentality

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You want your projects to get off to a good start and end without major glitches. However, what typically happens is that projects begin with many unknowns and continue to progress with more unknowns. Not only that, projects hit many bumps along the way — and you are constantly addressing problems, attempting to resolve issues and rallying to minimize risks. 

Faced with this, I recommend approaching projects with a “project network diagram” mentality. (A network diagram is a planning tool that shows sequences of tasks, dependencies on tasks and impacts on a project.) Here are tips on using a network diagram mentality for managing project schedules:

1.   Count backward. There are tasks that inevitably depend on each other and have specific time frames. For example, it might take 10 days for one task to be done and 15 days for dependent tasks to be complete. So right away, you know you already need 25 days for that project. So these start-to-finish and other connecting relationships matter when building a schedule, as do float, slack and critical path times. These are all time factors you consider when doing backward counting. The technique of counting backward helps define the schedule because you focus better so as not to miss a number or a task. 

2.   Look in other directions.  A horse can see in one direction with one eye and in the other direction with the other eye. A project manager needs to do the same and constantly be aware of the surroundings. A network diagram offers this peripheral vision by encompassing all the aspects that matter to the project — and helps you set boundaries. A view in one direction can focus on what’s happening in the project. The other direction could be the bigger picture of your project. Let the boundary be what could potentially surface from either of those directions. For example, say your company has a portfolio of projects it has to complete. So at the same time you’re keeping an eye on the spending on your project, you also want to be aware of whether the company will be able to maintain your resources over the length of the project, especially in an economy in which layoffs happen all the time. If your company has to release some of your resources, what then would be your contingency plan to still make sure your project can be completed?

3.   Keep the end in mind.  Have an idea of the goal the project should achieve. Encourage team members to maintain a layout of their tasks in a way that identifies and prioritizes what must be done and can be done to reach that goal. Then, inspire your team to approach all tasks with confidence. In a network diagram, after having laid possible connections together, the project manager sets controls in place, giving him or her the capability for more optimal opportunities of project success. Manage your time and your project team’s time based on making it to the finish line.

What method do you use to help you prepare for and better manage project schedules?

Posted by Bernadine Douglas on: December 02, 2014 05:41 PM | Permalink

Comments (9)

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Nice post, Bernadine. It's a good reminder that project management techniques can even apply outside of work! Your network diagram mindset could help with how we approach projects at home and other settings. Thanks for the reminder!

Bernadine, thanks for this article. It is kismet that I stumbled upon it too. I've recently been thinking that I don't employ network diagrams enough, and your article only serves to drive the point home. It really is an excellent way to see where in a project, slack exists, and to make plans for how to handle potential risks, should they be actualized.

I can't even count the number of times that I've seen a project fall behind schedule, because a PM and the team didn't have their eyes on the critical path. Rather they were completing tasks, and based on EV calculations, it appeared the project was on schedule, but it wasn't, because the critical path had slipped. This was never a disaster, but I'd like to avoid it, and network diagrams are an awesome way to manage for that.


Hi Andy, thank you for your comments. I am glad you see this as beneficial outside of work, also. When you get some time, share some of those. I would be interested in hearing about them.


Hi Darren, thanks! Bernadine

Hi Michael, thanks! Bernadine

Nice, I have never realized that a simple network diagram tool can be utilized to develop a more realistic schedule. Thanks for the idea.

We traditionally follow the same practice to develop schedules such a finding, organizing activities and applying dependencies as recommend by experts or experiences. However, never used the actual "network diagram" to make things more realistic but always adapt your suggested approaches.

Bernadine, do you know of a good software solution to creating a network diagram? Something that, allows you to plug in your tasks and durations and it will calculate your lead and lag times, along with identifying the critical path?

Dear Adams, I'm using a simulator called Cisco packet tracer for real-time functions. For all other diagrams for visual illustration purposes I use creately online diagramming and collaboration tool to draw cisco and other network diagrams, there are 1000s of netowkr diagram templates to be used freely in the diagram community.

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