Project milestones: What they are and how to use them
Need to know your projects are progressing? Using project milestones, charting a course is easy. We'll show you how below...
If you’re looking to track progress and measure your team’s success rate, then project milestones are vital. By ensuring everyone is aware of the final goal and the smaller goals achieved along the way, they keep everyone involved from start to finish. And when a team is fully invested in a project, communication, collaboration and focus all receive a boost – and that makes successful projects more likely.
But how does a team go about putting milestones in place to ensure the most favourable outcome? To help you achieve greater success across your work, we’ll focus on what project milestones are, how you can create them and some top tips and strategies to help you identify risks along the way.
What are project milestones?
A milestone is a marker in a project that signifies a change of stage in development. Think of them as like the project equivalent of a 40th birthday or passing your driving test. Basically, they’re big moments that mark a turning point.
And when they’re used in projects, milestones can show key events and plot out the forward progression of your project roadmaps. By breaking down a project into smaller sections, you and your team gain a clearer idea of what tasks need to be done and when they should be completed.
Milestones also help you stay on track too. Without them, you would simply be monitoring tasks, rather than following any logical project path.
How do project milestones differ from tasks?
Milestones differ from tasks in that the latter are activities within the project with a start and end time. Project milestones, on the other hand, have zero duration. They simply signpost the time by which a group of tasks need to be completed.
Milestones are also different from the below project terms too:
Goals: Goals represent the bigger picture of what you want to achieve with your project. Milestones are the checkpoints on the way to reaching these goals.
Schedule: A schedule is made up of all the activities that need executing in order to complete a project. Milestones are specific moments in time on the project schedule.
Deliverables: Deliverables are the output or result of the project’s activities. Milestones are specific events in the project’s life cycle.
If you find yourself confused over what is or isn’t a milestone in your project roadmap, then try asking yourself these questions:
Is this a task or a deliverable?
Will this impact the final deadline?
Is this an important moment in the project that will indicate forward progress?
Does this need to be reviewed by stakeholders?
Is this an event that impacts the project?
What are some examples of project milestones?
A few common examples of project milestones that you might want to feature in your project plan include:
Start and end dates for project phases
Client and stakeholder approvals
Important meetings and presentations
Key dates that might impact your timeline
Completing critical tasks
Securing financing, equipment, or resources
How to create project milestones
Rather than objectives or tasks, think of your project milestones as being moments in time; they should represent important checkpoints in your project. Look at your project schedule or roadmap, and mark any checkpoints or important moments as milestones.
For instance, if you’re launching a new product, you would usually create milestones for things such as finalising the launch messaging, launching your product web page and, of course, launching the product itself.
How many milestones should a project have?
There isn’t really a set number of milestones a project should have, it depends on the project itself. Some will have a couple, whereas others might have something close to double figures.
Rather than attempting to hit a certain number of milestones, you should aim to set milestones for the important events happening during your project’s progress. And don’t forget, the milestones are the moments in time, the tasks it takes to reach them will be noted down elsewhere in your project’s plan.
What to keep in mind when creating project milestones
Frequency and timing
Although project milestones can be big motivators, you should try not to overuse them. If you’re in the habit of celebrating every small thing as a milestone, it might end up distracting your team, and affecting their productivity. Likewise, constantly updating the client with milestone updates for the smallest bit of progress might begin to get tiresome.
At the same time, leaving too much space between milestones won’t help either. The main point of milestones for your team is to keep them motivated. The boost in momentum they get from hitting one drives them on to the project’s end. When they’re spaced too far apart, the lack of momentum can become a big issue.
Project milestones allow every member of a team to be on the same page. It’s the project manager’s responsibility to make everyone aware of each milestone by incorporating them into the relevant resources and documentation of the project.
If your team is struggling to follow the timeline of each milestone, then it defeats the point of having them in the first place. Once again, the project manager should stress the importance of meeting all milestones on time. Project management dashboards are especially useful for keeping track of and accounting for timelines.
While it might seem counter-productive, it can be a good idea for project managers to create milestones that might be a challenge for the team. Even if they don’t meet them, they can use the experience as a learning opportunity to help them excel in the future.
When should you create project milestones?
The best time to decide on milestones is early in the project’s life cycle, ideally in tandem with the creation of the project roadmap.
At this stage, you don’t have a detailed, task-level plan, but you’ll still have project requirements and deliverables.
When coming up with project milestones, try asking yourself the following questions:
When do we have to freeze stakeholder input?
Where in the project do we need stakeholders to review progress?
At what points are we expected to deliver something?
You may also have to identify internal or team milestones. Consider the following:
When will you recruit the team members for this project?
When do we train them for the skills and knowledge needed for the project?
At what point do we acquire resources and tools?
After asking yourself the above questions, you have a selection of events that will then play a role in the project’s requirements, scope, budget, and timeline. Marking these milestones on your project roadmap will then allow your team, and the relevant stakeholders, to see what is required of them throughout the project.
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