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Getting Out of the Critical Path

Ray Smilor, President, Beyster Institute for Entrepreneurial Employee Ownership

Think of management like a relay race. The goal in the race is to get the baton around the track as fast as possible, without dropping the baton. To win, the team must have a system whereby each person knows his or her responsibility to complete that leg of the race, and then hands off the baton to the next runner smoothly and efficiently. If a runner stumbles or drops the baton, the race comes to a sudden stop, and the team fails.

I thought about this analogy after hearing a very successful serial entrepreneur and professional manager talk about building a fast-growth company. He saw his role as managing the critical path. By that, he meant making sure that no one obstructed or prevented the company from completing projects in a timely and effective manner.

His view is that in every company there are a series of critical paths—courses to a conclusion that employees have to run, under intense time pressure, to keep the company meeting goals and hitting objectives so that it keeps moving forward. If someone is blocking the critical path, then that person has to get out of the way. If he or she cannot find a way to get out of the critical path, then the CEO has to step in and clear the way so that the race can continue.

I like this way of thinking about management in entrepreneurial ventures. It clarifies the role of the CEO.

As long as each person gets his or her job done, then the critical path is open; the race keeps going; the company keeps moving forward. If a person can’t get the job done, then the CEO must step in.

Whether developing a product or completing a proposal or acquiring financing or recruiting staff, there are essential activities or milestones that have to be completed by one person before another can move forward. Sometimes the pivotal requirement may be procedural, like completing and submitting documentation before someone key can be hired. At other times, it may be technological, like solving a glitch in product development. What’s important is for the CEO to understand these moments in the race when the baton has to be handed off so that the next stage of the race can be run.

So the next time you think of project management in your organization, consider who’s in the critical path. And then let them know they have to get out of it.

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