When traveling to a new destination, milestones and signboards reassure you that you’re headed in the right direction and tell you how much farther you need to go to reach your destination.
In project management, project milestones do the same thing. They help you determine whether your project is headed in the right direction, how far you’ve come, and how close you are to the end of the project.
This guide will help you understand what project milestones are, why you need them, and how to set effective milestones for your project. We’ll also share some examples of project milestones you can use for your project.
A project milestone is a specific checkpoint representing a significant event within the project schedule. Such events include the start or end of a major phase of work, submission of a key project deliverable, external reviews, stakeholder approvals, key meetings, and so on.
Milestones are a great tool for tracking a project’s progress and ensuring that the project is on track. They allow you to take stock of where the project stands at that particular time and see what you’ve achieved so far and what remains to be done to complete the project.
Project milestones are also a great scheduling tool that allows project managers to accurately estimate the time required to complete a project.
Milestones often coincide with deliverables and can both be used to measure project progress. This tends to blur the line between the two and can lead to the idea that the two terms are interchangeable. However, each of them is a distinct project element.
A project deliverable is a tangible and quantifiable outcome, such as an article, a marketing video, a piece of software, or a physical product. A milestone, on the other hand, is a point in time that marks the start or end of specific work.
For example, if you are building a house, you first need to develop blueprints for the house. The blueprints are a deliverable since they are the tangible outcome of the architect’s work.
However, getting approval from the Buildings Department is a milestone. It marks the end of the approval phase and the beginning of the actual construction phase.
Project tasks are the activities that need to be completed within a certain duration to produce a given outcome. On the other hand, a milestone is a moment in time within a project’s life cycle that represents the beginning or completion of a task or a group of tasks.
For example, if you are building a car, some of the tasks involved include developing the engine, producing the tires, assembling the car, etc.
The completion of engine development is a milestone, but for it to be achieved, the engine development team has to work on the task of building the engine. The complete engine becomes the deliverable.
Here are five reasons why using project milestones is critical to the success of your project:
Milestones make it easier to monitor deadlines. Without milestones, you only have the start and end dates. In between the two, there’s nothing to tell you whether you’re on course to hit the deadline. Milestones make it easy to tell whether you’re on schedule or lagging behind.
Setting milestones at the start of a project allows you to spot potential bottlenecks and dependencies early. You can then develop a plan to deal with these bottlenecks before they cause delays and push the project beyond the budget.
Having clear milestones makes it easier for project managers to allocate time and resources effectively and deliver the project on time and within budget.
Stakeholders are not involved in every step of the project, but you still need to update them on its progress and get their approvals. Milestones provide a great opportunity for you to show the stakeholders that the project is progressing as scheduled.
Milestones are a great way to keep your team motivated. As they successfully hit each milestone, there’s a satisfaction that comes with knowing that the project is moving forward as planned. This gives the project team the motivation to work even harder to deliver the project successfully.
Here are a few examples of events that you can use as milestones in your project plan:
Start and end dates for key project phases
Key project meetings
Completion of crucial project tasks
Submission of key deliverables
Dates for tests and inspections
Deployment of key resources
External and internal reviews
Soft target dates
Start by identifying your project’s goals and objectives. What is the project supposed to achieve? What deliverables do you need to submit at the end of the project? What requirements do you need to incorporate into the project?
Without clearly understanding the project’s goals and objectives, it’s impossible to determine what needs to be done or the required resources, come up with milestones or even deliver the project successfully.
It’s impossible to complete a project in one fell swoop. For instance, if you have a project to construct a house, you can’t go from an empty site to a complete house in one instance. You have to get approvals, prepare the site, lay the foundation, construct the main structure, install the doors and windows, paint the house, and so on.
Once you’ve determined the project’s goals and objectives, you now need to structure the project into tasks that must be completed for the project to be successfully delivered. Don’t just list down the tasks. Instead, organize them by the order in which they should be completed.
The next step is to go through your task list and evaluate each task based on its duration, importance, and impact on the project. If a task has a huge impact on the project, go ahead and create a milestone around it.
Going back to the construction example, tasks like laying the foundation or installing the roof significantly impact the overall project, so these are ideal candidates for milestones.
However, installing doors doesn’t have such a huge impact, so there’s no need to create milestones around such a task. The milestone should mark a crucial event that helps move the project forward.
Another way to set project milestones is to group similar tasks. For example, in the construction example, tasks like installing dry walls, insulation, laying floor tiles, painting the interior walls, and fixing kitchen and bathroom installations can be grouped into interior works. You can set a milestone to mark the start or completion of such a group of tasks.
You should also consider setting milestones for any steps that require stakeholder review and approval. This helps keep them in the loop and provides opportunities for course correction without waiting until the whole project is complete.
For milestones to be useful as a scheduling tool, they need to have deadlines attached to them. Therefore, you now need to go through your milestone list and come up with a deadline for each milestone.
The deadline should be based on the difficulty and duration of the tasks required to achieve the milestone and the required resources.
At this point, your milestones are now ready, and you can go ahead and assign them to your project team. It’s also a good idea to create a visual representation of the milestones you can share with your team. One of the best ways to do this is to use a Gantt chart.
If you want your project milestones to be effective, there are some parameters that you should keep in mind when setting your parameters. These parameters include:
Getting the frequency and timing of your milestones right is a delicate balance. Have too many milestones close together, and they lose their importance. When almost every task is labeled as a milestone, there’s no satisfaction gained from achieving the milestone.
However, if the milestones are spaced too far apart, they become distant targets that appear unachievable. There’s no momentum or motivation to work towards the milestone.
Therefore, effective milestones should be appropriately spaced such that there is a sense of achievement when you hit them, but without making them too far apart.
Project milestones should be shared with everyone in the project team and key stakeholders. This way, everyone involved in the project can use them to gauge the project's progress.
Everyone assigned to a milestone should be aware of their role and how it affects the milestone’s achievement. The project manager also needs to regularly track everyone’s progress and ensure they are always on course to meet their milestones.
While good milestones should challenge the project team to give their best, don’t make your milestones too ambitious that they become unattainable. Think about the size of your team, the skills of your team members, and the budget and resources available to you when setting your milestones.
An effective outline clearly outlines the tasks that need to be completed to achieve the milestone. When the project team doesn’t know exactly what needs to happen to meet a milestone, it’s very unlikely that they’ll hit it.
Every milestone should have a definite start date and due date. Lack of a clearly-defined time-frame for the milestone creates room for procrastination and can easily introduce delays to the project.
An effective milestone builds upon the previous milestone and pushes you close to the end of the project. Once you’ve completed a milestone, you should be able to complete the project without coming back to the milestone again.
Here are 5 online tools that you can use to set and track your project milestones:
Milestone Planner: This is a simple yet powerful tool that allows you to create project timelines, set milestones, and share them with your project team.
ProofHub: An all-rounded project management tool with advanced milestone tracking features and multiple milestone visualization options.
GanttPRO: This is an intuitive app designed to help you create and visualize your project timelines and milestones using advanced Gantt charts.
Monday.com: Monday.com is a user-friendly and intuitive project management tool that allows you to present your project timeline in colorful, visually-appealing charts and calendars.
Hive: This robust project management platform is great for setting and tracking milestones for large and complex projects.
Michael started his career as a product manager and then developed a passion for writing. He has been writing on technology, remote working, productivity, etc., hoping to share his thoughts with more people.