The term milestone is a common word we use in day-to-day conversations. For example, obtaining a graduate degree may be a milestone in one’s education journey. Similarly, businesses use milestones to track their progress and success. For example, a small business may celebrate serving its 1,000th customer.
According to a recent survey, at least 12% of projects businesses undertook over 12 months failed. A common reason for project failure is not having milestones or failing to reach them. Some businesses also undertake projects without clear milestones.
Small businesses should have clear milestones and work towards reaching them. Marking milestones complete is evidence of project progress. It also boosts morale within the project team and across the organization.
What are project milestones?
A milestone can be defined as a significant event or achievement that marks a specific point in the project timeline. These milestones serve as key indicators of project progress. They also provide a clear framework for monitoring and evaluating the project's performance.
Project management milestones are closely tied to project goals and objectives. Milestones break a project into several segments. This allows the project managers to track progress towards specific targets.
A project goal may comprise several milestones and vice versa. It depends on whether the milestone is tied to one or more segments. An example is when the client approves the final product. Several project goals must be achieved to reach such a milestone.
Project teams should set clear and measurable milestones. This ensures the team stays on track and avoids potential delays or roadblocks. Unclear goals do not serve their intended purpose of marking progress.
Benefits of having project milestones
Project managers rely on project milestones to mark progress. Project milestones are also an effective way of keeping stakeholders updated. Let’s discuss the benefits in detail below.
Clear project roadmap
Project milestones outline the major achievements that must be accomplished during the project life cycle. They help to ensure the project stays on track and follows the project schedule. Project managers can also use milestones to break a project into distinct segments. The team may set a milestone to mark the end of each segment.
Project managers can use milestones as proof of the project’s progress. They can also use milestones to keep stakeholders updated. Each attained milestone is evidence that a project is on course to completion.
Keeping the team motivated
Having project milestones benefits the project team. They help build confidence in the project's success and manage expectations. Celebrating project milestones helps to boost team morale. Each achieved milestone motivates the project team to remain committed and pursue the next milestone. Achieving project milestones also provides a sense of accomplishment.
Measurable way of tracking performance
Project teams can use milestones to track progress. The milestones comprise checkpoints at various points across the project life cycle. Some businesses set their milestones at regular intervals. An example is setting every 1,000th item sold as a milestone.
Project milestones may also be tied to unique events. A business may consider the first day a new product is released as a milestone. Another milestone would be a small business celebrating five years of operation.
How are project milestones different from project goals, deliverables, and phases?
People often use project milestones, goals, and phases interchangeably. However, these three terms are different in the context of project management. Let’s discuss them in detail below.
Project milestones vs. project goals
Project milestones establish clear expectations for team members and stakeholders. They also provide benchmarks for assessing project progress. This is different from project goals, which define overall objectives. Project goals define what the project should achieve.
Project milestones and goals are not mutually exclusive. The project team may reach a milestone when they achieve a related project goal. Suppose one project goal for a marketing campaign is to increase sales. The team may reach some major milestones when they achieve this goal. Reaching a sales milestone will coincide with the team achieving its goal.
Project milestones vs. deliverables
A project’s deliverables are the expected concrete outcomes. They are tied to the project tasks and activities. Project deliverables can be objectively evaluated for quality. One way is to collect feedback from the end-users.
Milestones offer more subjective markers of progress. However, they can also be objective when tied to specific deliverables. One such milestone is when a product has been delivered to the client. Such a milestone is objective. The project team can reach it after it has delivered the project outcomes to the clients.
Project milestones vs. project stages
Project milestones provide clear checkpoints. They signal that the project team has completed a specific set of tasks. An example is the gates in the stage-gate process. Each gate is a milestone that the previous stage is complete.
Project stages may overlap or interact with each other. Some stages may also have interdependencies. An example is when using the Scrum framework. The project team iterates, or goes back and forth through the stages. A Scrum milestone might be to complete the team’s first sprint.
Project milestone examples
The easiest way to explain project milestones is to provide a few relatable examples. Project milestones are spread across the project’s life cycle. Some milestones are accomplished at the beginning of a project. Others are achieved at the end. Let’s highlight a few examples:
Early-stage milestones include checkpoints placed during the early project phases. Most of these key milestones revolve around the project planning phase. Below are some examples of early-stage project milestones.
The project champion may celebrate a milestone when their project idea is approved. Milestones do not involve any tasks or consume resources. They only mark progress. Approval means the project has crossed a checkpoint. Any activities completed before reaching a milestone are not tied to it but to project goals or objectives.
An example is presenting project ideas or gathering information around the idea. These activities are tied to the project initiation stage and not the milestone.
A project team may reach a milestone when the project budget is approved. This is only a marker of project progress. Some activities leading to the milestone include preparing a project budget. The project champion may also have met the stakeholders and project sponsors. The milestone is only reached when the budget request has been approved.
The project team may propose several designs to the client. The clients may approve the designs or request modifications. The project team may also study its competitor’s projects. All these activities are not considered project milestones. The project team may also reach a milestone after the client has approved the final design.
Mid-project milestones apply during project implementation. Project managers may use mid-project milestones to track progress specific to the deliverables. Below are some examples of mid-project milestones.
The project team may reach a milestone after they have received the requested resources. Any activities done prior are not milestones. This milestone is only a marker that the resource assignment process is complete.
Critical tasks completion
Project teams may tie critical tasks to milestones. The team reaches these milestones when the tasks are completed. Suppose a project team is to deliver software incrementally. The team may mark each delivered release as a milestone.
The project team may have smaller milestones tied to issues like system bugs. The team reaches the milestone when the updates are delivered to the clients. Collecting user feedback and fixing the bugs are not milestones.
End of the project milestones
These are key milestones that mark the end of the project. They involve handing over the project to the client and collecting feedback. Below are a few end-stage project milestones.
Several activities go into testing a product’s suitability and compliance. The project team must confirm the product meets industry standards. It should also meet clients’ requirements. Project activities tied to the testing phase do not qualify as milestones. The project team reaches a milestone when the product is approved or certified compliant. The team may reach another milestone when the client approves the product, marking the project complete.
Fixing the identified defects
Suppose a client does not approve a product for one or more reasons. The project team must resolve the highlighted issues. The project is incomplete at this point. The team cannot claim to have reached the last milestone. The project team will address the identified defects and deliver the new updates. Delivering the updates is not a milestone. The team will reach the milestone when the client has approved the updates and accepted the product.
6 tips for creating practical project milestones
Project managers should identify practical milestones for effective progress tracking. The milestones should align with project goals. They should also be easy to understand. Let’s discuss the tips in detail below.
Start with clear project goals
The project team should have a clear understanding of the project goals. This makes it easy to set the project milestones. It also ensures the set milestones align with the project goals. The milestones should also reflect the key deliverables or achievements that must be met.
Break down the project into manageable segments
Divide your project into smaller, more manageable segments. Each milestone should represent a significant step towards completing the project. Breaking down the project into smaller milestones makes it easier to track progress. The milestones reached should show how far the project is from completion.
Use SMART criteria
Make your milestones specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART). This ensures that each milestone is well-defined and clearly indicates progress. The milestones should also be achievable. Checkpoints that cannot be reached are not milestones.
Project teams should also avoid milestones that are not measurable. A milestone like “Sold the product to many customers” is not measurable. A better milestone would be “1,000 units sold”. Such a milestone is specific and measurable.
Involve key stakeholders
Project teams should involve key stakeholders when setting milestones. This ensures that the milestones are realistic. The milestones should also be aligned with the stakeholders’ expectations. Involving stakeholders also ensures you have the necessary buy-in from all parties.
Review and update milestones regularly
Some project milestones are dynamic. They may change as the project progresses. Project milestones may also change in response to external factors. An example is when regulatory bodies pass new compliance requirements. The project team may add new milestones to reflect these changes.
Businesses should review and update their milestones regularly. This ensures the milestones align with the project's evolving needs and circumstances. It also ensures milestones remain measurable and achievable.
Project teams should celebrate every milestone they reach. Celebrating milestones boosts morale and motivates the team. Reaching a milestone also builds a sense of accomplishment. It serves as a reminder of the progress made and helps maintain momentum. Project managers should use milestones to celebrate their teams’ efforts. Simple efforts like sending congratulatory messages go a long way in motivating project team members.
Create practical project milestones for improved business success
Project milestones serve as progress indicators. Project teams should break down the project into manageable segments. They should also set clear and measurable milestones. Project teams can use the set milestones to track progress.
Project managers can also use milestones to update stakeholders on progress. Milestones demonstrate project achievements. They also help manage expectations and build confidence in the project's success.
Project managers can create and track project milestones using project management tools like Motion. They can create a milestone chart indicating all the checkpoints. They can share the milestones with other team members and project stakeholders. Project managers can also use Motion to delegate tasks and communicate strategies for reaching major milestones.
Small businesses can use Motion to map out the project. This includes preparing a project schedule and breaking down the project into segments and tasks. A milestone may mark the end of each segment. Motion marks the milestone as complete when the conditions under a milestone are met.
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