project milestones

In today’s blog post, we will talk about “project milestones” and their importance in project management.

Let’s start our discussion with a simple real-world example.

Imagine you are in 1980 when there was no GPS and you want to take a 13-hour journey by car from Chicago to New York. On this journey, you will pass through Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania to reach New York. 

You know that there is a chance that you may get lost and the journey will be delayed.

However, you must reach New York in 13 hours. Therefore you plan the journey and set targets as shown below:

  • Chicago to Indiana – 2 hours
  • Indiana to Ohio – 2 hours
  • Ohio to Pennsylvania – 5 hours
  • Restroom Break – 1 hour
  • Pennsylvania to New York – 3 hours

In this example, if the journey is a project, then these places are milestones. The project starts in Chicago and ends in New York, and the duration is 13 hours. If you don’t set your milestones as above and you reached your first milestone after a delay of one hour, you will not reach New York in 13 hours. 

Milestones ensure that you are on track to achieve your goal.

What is a Project Milestone?

A milestone is a reference point that identifies an important event in a project. Project milestones are also knowns as stage gates, phase reviews, phase entrances, phase exits, kill points, etc.

A project milestone is a way to track the project’s progress. Since project milestones are the most noticeable project success indicators, deciding milestones is an important part of project planning. 

Milestones are accomplishments, for example, any deliverable or phase end, etc. You can divide your project based on deliverables and track the progress.

Some examples of project milestones:

  • Project kick-off
  • Requirements review
  • Phase 1 approval
  • Phase 1 completion
  • Phase 2 completion
  • Phase 3 completion
  • Documents finalized
  • Project complete

If your project is building a product, you can set project milestones by deliverables; the last milestone will be the complete product. 

You can set project milestones with key events, such as design approval, plan approval, etc. 

Milestones cover the entire project; however, these milestone points can vary from project to project. For longer projects, you can have sub milestones in the execution phase as it will provide better control and visibility.

Please note that project milestones have no duration as these are events, not an activity or tasks.

Why are Project Milestones Important?

Milestones are important for the following reasons:

  • You can monitor project deadlines.
  • You can identify process bottlenecks.
  • You can see critical project dates at a glance.
  • They provide better project visibility, so you can see how much work is completed and what the balance is.
  • They help with better resource allocation and time management.
  • You can link payments to your contractors based on achieving milestones. This will help to track expenses effectively.
  • Stakeholder involvement can be planned as per the milestone to save their time. Stakeholders can focus on the work rather than being involved every minute with the development team.
  • Milestones encourage everyone to take responsibility for their assigned tasks.
  • They demonstrate measures of success. Achieving milestones is a rewarding and tangible way to show a project’s overall success.

What’s the Best Way to Create Project Milestones?

Follow the below steps to create project milestones:

  • Create a project goal
  • Break requirements into tasks
  • Map tasks to milestones
  • Use templates to track the milestones
  • Identify and address bottlenecks

Create a Project Goal

Understand the needs of the project and how it will benefit the end-user. Will it bring any revenue in the near or future, or are the benefits intangible such as brand recognition? These questions will help you understand the project’s feasibility

In the example given in the introduction, reaching New York from Chicago is the project goal.

Break Requirements Into Tasks

Split requirements or features into user stories and then further break them down into tasks and sub-tasks. This will help you with cost and duration estimation. 

In the example, the journey from Chicago to Indiana is a task.

Map Tasks to a Milestone

Once tasks are identified and you know the duration estimate, map them to milestones. 

In the example given in the introduction, reaching Michigan City is part of reaching Milestone 1 (Indiana State). 

Use Templates to Track Milestones

Identify critical tasks and sequences. For example, you can’t reach Ohio without crossing Indiana. Identify the shortest path (Critical Path); for instance, you can go from Chicago to Indiana via many routes. Find the best route to reach it faster. 

You have many methods to track milestones, such as a simple Excel Gantt chart template, open-source tools, or commercial project management tools

These milestones templates can track:

  • The start date of the project
  • The project tasks
  • Who is working on each task
  • The start and finish of a task
  • The duration of each task 
  • The finish date of the project

Identify and Address Bottlenecks

If the selected route is blocked, identify the next best route, check the impact on timelines, and update your travel plan accordingly. In the case of a project, identifying the bottlenecks during project execution (e.g., resource on long leave, change in regulations) and monitoring critical paths will help address this.

Below are examples showing project milestones:

create project milestones

Milestone vs Goal vs Task vs Deliverable

Milestones, goals, tasks, and deliverables are different. 

A goal is what you are going to deliver in the future.

A task is an actionable item that has a time estimate for completion.

A deliverable is a quantifiable result (can be an end product)

Scheduling in Milestones?

Milestones help understand:

  • What was completed 
  • When it was completed
  • What will complete in the coming days/months
  • And other factors. 

You will know when to start a task, its dependencies, the effort required, urgency level for the task, etc.

Milestones make the schedule robust when coupled with other techniques such as Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) or Critical Path Method (CPM).

Before noting down milestones, it is essential to sequence the activities for proper planning and to determine milestones.

Dependencies define the relationships between tasks, and they indicate when a task should start or finish. You can see the dependency on a Gantt chart as lines connecting two tasks or a task to a milestone.

Types of Dependencies

Finish to Start: Task B can’t start before Task A is finished

Start to Start: Task B can’t start before Task A starts

Finish to Finish: Task B can’t finish before Task A is finished

Start to Finish: Task A can’t finish before Task B starts

Ideally, at each milestone, key stakeholders of the project review the project’s progress to understand where the project currently stands.

The image below shows dependencies on a Gantt chart:

milestones scheduling

If the project is big, you cannot rely only on milestones; in such a case, it is better to have some checkpoints to track the progress. 

If the project is not on track, you will bring it back using corrective plans, schedule compression techniques, workarounds, etc. 

Conclusion

Project milestones show you the project’s progress and ensure the project is on schedule. They help identify bottlenecks in processes and let you manage resources efficiently. If Milestones are long, you can have a few quick, tangible checks between milestones to ensure you are not missing the progress.

How are you using project milestones on your project? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.