What is a Milestone in Project Management?

Ever wondered what a project milestone entails and how critical it is to project success? You've come to the right place. Let's start at the very beginning and understand what is a milestone in project management and define its underlying characteristics:

  • Project performance: Milestone planning is a management tool used to monitor and measure project progress as well as performance. It helps to delineate various 'points' (think: project start, completion, major phases in between, etc.) in a project schedule and acts as a 'reference point' for important decision-making relating to budget checks, reviews, deadlines, etc.
  • Intermediate stages: It breaks off the project into smaller, more focused intermediate phases that are important and help project managers to plan and execute the project successfully, leading it to completion and achieving the overall project goal.
  • Key factors: The key factors that form an integral part of project milestones are frequency of occurrence and its ability to act as a window of opportunity for course correction as well as learning.

The learning: Milestones act as a foundation on the basis of which you can monitor and schedule its progress, use it as 'proof' for explaining the project status, and drive accountability as well as a motivation among the team members.

Moving on, let's look at some real-life examples of milestones in project management tasks.

Milestone in Project Management: Examples

In this section, we will look at the varied types of milestones that can be used during a project, which includes the following (but is not limited to):

  • Driving high-priority tasks/decisions central to project completion related to costs, timelines, resources, among others
  • Start and finish dates for project phases
  • Stakeholder approvals allowing for seamless progress into the next phase 
  • List of deliverables, meetings, events, and so on 
  • Checkpoints/percentages of completion throughout the project lifecycle: For example, say you are working on a marketing campaign and need a series of emails ready as a major milestone. If the emails are ready on schedule halfway through the project, you can say that the project is 50% complete.
  • Using time/resources optimally, which signifies a specific number of hours/materials attributed to a project. For example, if a project is expected to take 5 hours and cost $5,000 to complete, finishing it in 2.5 hours and spending $2500 can be regarded as a milestone.
  • Soliciting and getting project funding
  • Kick-starting the project with a meeting
  • Getting a project team in place by hiring the right resources and assets for a project and signing contracts
  • Obtaining patent approvals and getting the project charter approved
  • Creating press releases and other marketing collaterals
  • Engaging in product launches and subsequent critical events that span across a project life cycle–from initiation and planning to execution and closure.

Key points to remember:

  • Not every deadline/task completed symbolizes a milestone. In other words, not all milestones are deadline-driven.
  • Milestones can be linked to one another and therefore, allow for the optimized allocation of resources, time, as well as budgets.
  • The intermediate stages are significant for meeting the overall project goal.
  • Milestones are continuous and consistent 'check points' (as opposed to being a single end-goal) in a project that help reach the project's end-goal as seamlessly and easily as possible.
  • These milestones can be applied to any project regardless of its industry/domain.

The learning: Owing to its simplicity, project milestones enable managers and leaders to provide an overview of the project schedule to key stakeholders and team members, without deep-diving into the minute details. Determining what should be considered as a milestone within your project is not an easy ask, and requires plenty of effort, collaboration, and strategic thinking.

This brings us to the next most important question: 

"How to Determine Major Milestones in a Project?"

There's no 'one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to visualizing the major milestones in a project. So the real question then becomes: "When do you add the milestones?"

Simply put, when you’ve completed everything that relates to the specific project phase. For instance, place a milestone when you have completed the project charter in the initiation phase of your project–a move that indicates that you are now moving into the 'planning' phase of a project. 

Additionally, remember the following points when understanding at what exact point you should set your milestone(s):

  • Your milestone placement will vary depending on the project type, your organization type, etc. So get external help from the specialists and experts, and collaborate within your company and team to ensure that everyone is on the same page.
  • You can set milestones within a project to represent the 'big tasks', critical events, etc. instead of tying the milestones to specific project phases.

In terms of how to create a project milestone, you can embrace any of the following methods and visualize milestones within your project:

  • Gantt Chart: By using it in project management tools such as a Gantt chart, where you can view the outstanding milestones within a task/project and get rid of the key bottlenecks within the project.
  • Project Plan: By using it as an important reference point while making a project schedule, a project charter, and a project plan.
  • Scheduling System: By using it in diverse scheduling methodologies, such as the Critical Path Method, to calculate where your project might be lacking and how you can course-correct with agility.
  • Milestone Chart: By using it as a milestone chart in project management where you use milestones to divide a project schedule into major phases.

The learning: Milestones, by their very nature, are a versatile way of managing project status. You can adopt a plethora of methodologies and processes to create results-driven milestones.

The Takeaway

Milestones are central for effective project planning and scheduling. They empower you to segment your project into smaller intervals for better project performance. Every project manager should ultimately use the data at hand as well as the instinct to collaborate and define the project milestones that they need to implement and track the project progress.