Let’s talk network diagrams! More specifically, let’s discuss how network diagrams are used in project management. Ever begin a task only to find out there are five more tasks that need to be completed before you can move forward? Lack of organization and planning in a project leads to confusion, roadblocks, and wasted time.
There are many benefits to building a network diagram, and they can be an invaluable resource to a project team. That said, they still have a number of limitations. In this post, we’ll share the pros and cons of network diagrams for project management so you can decide if the tool is right for you and your team.
If you’ve been in the project management industry for a while, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of, used, or maybe even created a network diagram to keep track of a project. They are a widely used tool, but are they the right tool? Let’s find out.
What Is a Network Diagram? How Is It Used in Project Management?
Image Credit: Lucidchart
A network diagram is a project management tool that shapes the sequence of activities into a simple workflow. The diagram tool is sometimes referred to as a project network diagram or a project schedule network diagram. For an example, see the image above from Lucidchart.
The process provides project managers with a visual representation of the work that needs to be completed for a project. When done well, it can illustrate the relationships between tasks.
No one on the team, least of all the project manager, wants to waste any time when completing a project. With a network diagram, you can spot bottlenecks before they occur, which means more time can be dedicated to the actual work and collaborating as a team. 🎉
Network Diagram for Project Management Types: ADM vs. PDM
There are two types of network diagrams, and different methods for making each one. The two types are ADM (arrow diagram method), which is sometimes called an activity-on-arrow network diagram, and PDM (precedence diagram method). which is sometimes called an activity-on-node network diagram.
Arrow Diagram Method
The arrow diagramming method represents each task with an arrow. The beginning of the task is the tail of the arrow, which leads to the end of the task at the point. The nodes (often represented as boxes) that the arrows fall between are the milestones you hope to reach.
This type of network diagram is no longer very popular in project management. You’re more likely to come across the PDM method since it is able to represent relationships.
Precedence Diagram Method
The precedence diagramming method has tasks represented by each node. The arrow in between each node represents the relationship between tasks. The arrows can represent four relationships:
- Finish to start: The activity can only start when its predecessor activity is complete.
- Start to start: Two activities need to start simultaneously.
- Finish to finish: Two activities need to finish together.
- Start to finish: The activity cannot finish until another starts.
For example, a product needs a name before branding materials can be created (finish to start) or a landing page may need to launch on the same day an event announcement is made (start to start).
Network Diagram for Project Management Benefits
Network diagrams can simplify the complex nature of a project cycle, but are they the right tool for you and your team? Below we’ll cover the many benefits of using network diagrams in project management.
1. Visual Representation 🎨
Seeing is believing! When a team can see the work that needs to be completed and the order in which tasks need to be completed, the road ahead is clear.
A network diagram creates a visual representation of the work that needs to be completed. Project managers, team members, and stakeholders can see the steps it will take to complete a project as well as any interdependencies between tasks.
2. Attention to Detail 🔎
We have to admit that creating a detailed, properly represented network diagram takes a looonnnnnggg time, and we’ll get to that when we discuss disadvantages. 😓 But the process of creating a network diagram also gives the project manager a clear view of what needs to get done at the outset of a project.
The attention to detail at the beginning of a project sets the whole team up for success. It can draw attention to any project activities that could cause the team difficulties, and it can highlight any interdependencies that could delay the work. The intense project planning at the beginning of a project makes the project manager think about each task in detail. Each task becomes real and tangible as it gets added to the diagram, and important relationships between tasks will form.
3. Identify Relationships 🤝
With the precedence diagramming method, the network diagram process shows relationships between each node (task.) Do two tasks need to begin at the same time? Does one task need to start before another can begin?
The diagram illustrates these logical relationships to help the team make smart decisions about what work to do when and how to go through the sequence of events in a project.
4. Prevent Bottlenecks 🍼
Delay: the dirty word of any project. No one — not project managers, team members, stakeholders, or customers — wants to hear that a project has been delayed. Delays throw off work schedules, budgets, client satisfaction, and morale.
The network diagram prevents bottlenecks from occurring by illustrating dependencies between tasks. If the network diagram is correct, the relationships between tasks will be clearly visible. The team will know that task X needs to occur first. Otherwise, task Y can’t start.
5. Combine With Critical Path Method ⏰
The network diagram doesn’t need to be the only tool you employ. It can be used along with the Critical Path Method (CPM,) which adds a time management layer to work planning — and we all know how important time is to project management.
The critical path in project management is the longest duration a project needs to take in order for it to be complete. It adds estimated time frames to each task within a project to give a total project duration. In combination with the network diagram, this provides a full view of what needs to be completed and how long it will take.
Network Diagram for Project Management Limitations
Although there are many benefits to project network diagrams, they do have limitations, specifically, the time it takes to create one and the lack of agile flexibility they provide.
1. Lengthy Building Process ⏳
Making a project diagram takes a long time, and it’s often completely up to the project manager. This can put a lot of pressure on one person, and the process often doesn’t fully utilize the team’s knowledge and expertise. The project diagram’s time-consuming nature costs businesses a lot of money, and it must be completed before a project can even begin.
2. Open to Human Error ❌
The network diagram requires accurate information. If everything is riding on the calculations and interdependencies of this one diagram, it absolutely needs to be correct. But humans are, well, human, which means errors can occur. This is especially dangerous if corners are cut while making the diagram or if it’s made without up-to-date project data.
3. May Be Misinterpreted 🤔
Depending on the tools used to create the project network diagram, the insights it provides could be quite simple. It may say what a task is and its relationship to other tasks but not give a detailed overview of each task. Task names and descriptions need to be clear, and even then, the team can misinterpret them. Is it clear what each task entails? What does it actually mean to be done with a task?
4. Can Become Overly Complicated 🤯
As we’re sure you can attest to, projects can get complicated. Simple diagramming tools make it difficult to view large, complex projects, and the diagram can quickly become overcomplicated. This adds to the likelihood that the team misunderstands the project scope or individual requirements. When a diagram becomes overly complicated and difficult to read, the visual benefits are lost on everyone — including the person who made it.
5. Not Flexible or Agile ✨
This is a big one, and it’s a common issue with many project management tools. The system is rigid, leaving little room for flexibility as the project plays out.
As much as we’d love to have all needed the information upfront in order to create a perfect diagram of what to expect throughout the project, things change, and the unexpected is always creeping around every corner. What you thought was the right path at the beginning of a project may be completely different after a few weeks due to new stakeholder or customer feedback.
Since the network diagram takes so long to create and is entirely dependent on everything going as planned, it may limit a team’s flexibility.
So what’s the solution? It all depends on the needs of your team and the nature and complexity of the work you are doing. More and more project management teams are turning to agile methods and tools that still provide some upfront planning but leave room to grow and adapt as new project information is acquired through testing, feedback, and iteration.
Network diagrams — yay or nay?
So is it a yay or nay on network diagrams? You know your work, projects, and clients better than anyone else. There are many benefits to going through the detailed process of creating a network project diagram, and using this method is certainly better than not using any method at all. When combined with the critical path method, you can see a clear overview of relationships and timelines in order to better plan the work.
That said, there are limitations. As projects and customer needs become more and more complicated, these diagrams may not provide enough detail, and they can be misinterpreted or prone to human error. The diagram also places heavy emphasis on planning upfront, which means it’s difficult to adapt as new information is acquired.
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