Milestones in Project Management – What are they?

A project milestone is a point that has important significance in relation to delivery of a particular aspect of the project or financial payment. This is delineated in a point in the project schedule so it is evident to the project team, stakeholders and management. These points can note the start and finish of a project, and mark the completion of a major phase of work. Milestones can be used to symbolize anything that has started or finished, though it’s primarily used as a scheduling tool.

A milestone focuses on major progress points within a project, which is useful in scheduling. Just as tasks break a larger project into manageable parts, milestones break off components of a project to make it less daunting.

So, when starting a project, milestones can help immensely with scheduling. Milestones are most commonly found in project management software, and are represented as diamonds in the Gantt chart feature. Gantt charts are a visual representation of a schedule, laid out on a timeline, with tasks as points along the path to the successful completion of the project. Milestones divide this timeline into project phases.

Milestones provide a way to more accurately estimate the time it will take to complete a project, making them essential for precise project scheduling. They are often used in scheduling methodologies, such as the Critical Path Method, which can determine major scheduling periods. The use of milestones enables better calculation of the slack in a project by segmenting the project into intervals, or smaller time-frames to control.

Milestones, like tasks, can be linked. That is when the phase of one milestone cannot begin until the completion of the phase before it. That way the team members are not being hampered by having to wait or by not allowing them what they need to move forward with their tasks.

Milestones measure progress by breaking the project into phases. A milestone is a marker that separates the end of one phase from the start of another. There are typically four phases in project management: initiation, planning, implementation and closure. But when exactly is the milestone added?

The simple answer is when everything in that project phase has been completed. For example, completing the project charter is usually the last step in the initiation phase of a project. This would be where the milestone is placed to indicate moving from initiation to planning.

However, the exact point at which the milestone is placed depends on negotiation with the project team members, stakeholders, management. Some Milestones are self-evident and hence no formal discussion is required whereas others may need further input. It’s always best to seek help from experts in the industry and within the organization. A little guidance upfront can save a lot of headaches later on.

Milestones are more a period in time than the specific completion of a task, there can be milestones that don’t relate to project phases. Milestones can be points that are deemed important to the successful delivery of a project. Traditionally, they break projects into phases; a milestone can be created to indicate a major task, deliverable or more.

Part of scheduling a project is being able to monitor and track the progress of that schedule in real-time. Milestones are a way to see how far a project has progressed. By noting the completed milestones, this way the distance for the current point in time of the project to the end can be measured.

This comes in handy when dealing with stakeholders. Stakeholders are not interested in a granular, detailed report on the project’s progress. They want broad strokes that indicate whether or not the project is moving along as scheduled. Milestones are ideal for this kind of reporting because milestones show the major phases completed at this point in the project, according to the plan.

When presenting to stakeholders, they can be shown milestones completed to date and the ones on track to complete for the coming month. Let them know if those milestones were reached as planned or if there were any delays. Remain honest if milestone was late in being achieved, this should not be hidden. By being transparent, stakeholders receive a sense of where the project is. They will understand and appreciate the honesty, and in turn trust the professionalism in managing the project.

Reaching a milestone is a place in time, but that doesn’t mean completion. How is it understood that a milestone has in fact been achieved? Without knowing initially if the objectives planned where reached at the close of a milestone, then it’s an empty victory.

Project reporting assists with this situation, by generating a status report and get a look at the overall health of the project. Were the tasks completed on time and within the budget that was set? For example, a change in project scope may have occurred or perhaps there has been some slippage and the schedule has fallen behind. That’s not a milestone to celebrate.

However, it’s also not a cause for undue alarm. Changes are part of any project. The problems arise when those changes aren’t responded to. By running a status report, there is an understanding of what’s changed and its impact on the project. Work towards getting back on schedule by reaching the next milestone, run more reports to track progress and make sure the project is staying on track.

Milestones are mainly used for the nuts and bolts of scheduling; they are also useful for celebrating project achievements. Obviously, once a milestone has been reached it’s because the team has done something right, like completing a phase of the project or delivering something important, which can be used to congratulate the team.

Celebrate success in whatever manner is deemed fit for the project. It can be as simple as a handshake or a note to the team. Something bigger, like treating the team to a lunch or offer a bonus. Acknowledging the team’s achievement pays off in dividends in the forms of employee retention, team loyalty and project buy-in. It also fosters a positive relationship with the team and building trust, which is instrumental to a productive project.

Milestones can be anything deemed important by the project team, stakeholders and management. Remember to consult those involved with the successful delivery of the project to ensure milestones are reflected correctly. Once established they should be placed in a project management software tool for representation, via Gantt charts which provide real-time data, and a collaborative platform to assist with efficient and productive information for the team.

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