When working on big project’s with lengthy timelines, you’ll need to set project milestones to keep the team on schedule. A project, in itself, is a sum, and its parts are project milestones that accumulate together to give us a final product. Project milestones are the key events within a project.
Project milestones serve as a work breakdown structure (WBS), but they also help us track the progress of our many projects, so that a project team knows how their project is doing even when all team members are not familiar with the entire project.
In this article, we’ll be breaking down how you can define project milestones for all of your future projects. Let’s get started!
Project milestone examples
While project management has a technical side, project milestones at their core can be understood by anyone.
If you take on a project of baking bread, you could break it down into several milestones that could include getting the flour, kneading the dough, blooming the yeast, etc.
Similarly, these milestones are tied to the key deliverables and their surrounding tasks that eventually lead to project completion in project management.
The following are some examples of a project milestone:
Project approval is mostly the first milestone in a project's life cycle. Project managers and the concerned team agree on a project plan that includes the project scope and goals.
Project requirements review
The agreed-upon project plan can be submitted to the clients for stakeholder approval. Any negotiations or clarification can be made at this stage, and work can begin on the project when this milestone is completed.
Once the actual project begins, the team can work on a project design and put it up to the client for approval.
In most cases, the clients give a lot of feedback and require specific changes to be made, which is part of the process of project completion.
Project phase milestones
A project life cycle contains different project phases, such as the research and testing phases. Milestones can help distinguish these project phases by providing essential dates such as starting and end dates.
Final milestone and client approval
A project's completion date doesn't occur when a team finishes all its tasks. After all key deliverables have been submitted, final approval is still required from the client.
The project will only be considered complete once the clients agree it is. If not, the team has to go back and work on the provided feedback. The creative team can move on to the next project once the client accepts their current project.
Milestones in project management
Project milestones serve several purposes. They help managers plan, schedule, track, and communicate projects.
No matter how large they are, all projects can be broken down using project milestones. This helps project managers delegate tasks to their team members and ensure that they are on track with the project schedule and that the project plan is rightly advancing towards project success.
Milestones in project schedule
A crucial element of a project milestone is the time estimation they provide for projects. Milestones provide this estimation by scheduling important dates for all of the project plans.
Whether they are small project deliverables or major events, project schedules keep everyone involved in the projects on track for successful projects. Milestones can be used in project schedule tools such as Gantt charts.
In a project schedule, milestones can help break down the project timeline into shorter intervals that are easier to track.
What milestones provide
Milestones bring organization to projects. They also assist managers and their critical members with time management and help in team collaboration.
The following are a few ways in which project milestones are used in project management:
Marking critical tasks
Most projects include some tasks that are central to project completion, and other tasks depend on them. For example, the product design, which the marketing team will need to create a campaign around. A project milestone can help schedule and track these critical tasks.
Separating different stages
All projects are divided into phases or stages. These can be highlighted using a project milestone between the different phases, such as end dates, and also within the phases, for example, marking critical events of each phase separately.
Ensuring project goals
All projects have some key deliverables that must be ensured to provide the clients with a good product. Milestones can help ensure that these are completed on time for the overall project's success.
The importance of a milestone in project management
The following are some reasons why project management milestones are so crucial:
Helps track progress
Project milestones are invaluable to managers as they help them track one project's progress and achieve project goals and help manage multiple projects.
Using project milestones in project portfolio management is common. Managers often have simultaneous projects running on project management software, and milestones can help measure project progress for all of them efficiently.
Creates effective communication
It is also a manager's job to communicate effectively with their team. Project milestones can help achieve that by providing them with key project deliverables and their significant dates.
Motivates the team
Project managers can motivate their team by breaking large projects down into different phases, marked with key milestones.
When a manager or team member marks off each milestone and proceeds to the next milestone, they start moving towards the final deliverable in an organized manner.
Assists resource management
Key milestones and their understanding can also help managers with resource management. As the important subgoals are met one by one, managers have a better idea of their remaining time according to their schedule.
Completing these milestones lets them delegate the remaining tasks and plan ahead of the end milestone, resulting in a successful project.
It is very easy to get confused about project management's different systems and methodologies.
Project managers need to be clear on what they are using, the rationale for using a specific mechanism or system, and how they intend to use it effectively.
Following are some distinctions that all project managers should be aware of:
Milestones are not project phases
While milestones are valuable to project phases, they are not the same thing. Phases break down a project into different stages.
A milestone is used to mark these phases. Each major phase can have multiple milestones within it that markdown each important task, and each phase can also be separated from other use milestones.
For example, a project can start with a research phase that will include tasks such as looking at academic research, compiling the target audience's opinion, looking at previous statistics, etc.
Each of these tasks can be marked by a milestone, and the last milestone of this phase can initiate the start of the next phase, which could be product design.
Milestones are not project goals
Project goals refer to outcomes that you are looking to achieve with the project. Primary project goals can be broken down into smaller goals.
Milestones can help mark project goals within the project timeline using project management tools such as Gantt charts, but these are not goals themselves.
For example, one project goal could be to deliver a campaign poster to the client. This goal could be achieved in several project phases, i.e., the research, design, and creation phases.
Milestones can help with deliverables within each phase, ultimately leading to the project goal.
Milestones are not project deliverables
A project milestone goes hand in hand with project deliverables, making it easy to confuse the two. Project deliverables are concrete results of products created during a project.
Milestones are simply the time these deliverables are completed.
For example, one deliverable within the project's research phase is to make a detailed list of all the materials the product team will require going into the production phase.
Once this list is complete, the project manager can mark this deliverable as full by adding a milestone icon for this task on the project management software.
Milestones are not tasks
Project tasks are the basic unit of all project planning. All projects can be broken down into singular tasks that need to be carried out by various team members to complete a project.
All of these tasks also require specific time to be completed. When these tasks are started or completed are simply marked by several key project milestones.
For example, a design team would need to carry out many small tasks such as designing a logo, creating a color theme, and selecting fonts for a digital product. All these tasks can have their separate milestones within the major milestone.
Creating milestones for projects
Milestone planning is an essential part of project planning because you cannot have a concrete plan without knowing significant events, phases, and key deliverables, all of which need to be marked on the project timeline.
Project managers should try and schedule milestones that match the client's requirements but also manage expectations when it comes to deliverables. This can be achieved by first working on the project life cycle, creating the major milestones, and then working on their estimated completion dates.
As the project progresses, milestones can be marked complete or reviewed based on the achievements so far.
However, milestones are not only there to be checked off. They provide predictions for future milestones and allow project managers to track project progress.
It’s not enough to just set the milestones. Milestones are best utilized when they are effectively communicated with the project team and also the clients – usually through collaborative platforms like Asana or Wrike.
Milestones can be reported to the client to keep them up to date with the project and should be something significant that can be celebrated.
Keeping the clients in the loop with the project can also help maintain a good client-provider relationship, allowing you to get their feedback on key milestones.
Suppose your team members have been unable to achieve a specific milestone. In that case, it is a good time to solve any problems, help the team members, allocate more resources to the task, and maybe reschedule the upcoming milestones.
The most crucial element of a delayed milestone is understanding why it got delayed. Was the project timeline too ambitious? Were any of the setbacks predictable?
What could have helped the team stay on track? And what further improvements can be made to the schedule to avoid any such delays in the future? All of these questions should be answered to make sure there is growth in the process.
Project managers put a mountain of effort into project management milestone planning, and there is no exact science to it. Milestone planning requires a lot of effort, and unforeseen circumstances are always present in every kind of planning.
However, some common mistakes can be avoided to achieve the best outcomes. The following are a few pitfalls that managers can easily fall into when setting milestones for a project:
- Too many milestones
All projects have different scopes and limitations. The number of milestones needed for the project will vary on what is required, but often managers can overschedule and create too many milestones within a project.
Too many milestones only serve to confuse teams and can even be damaging to the progress of a project. To be exact, each task or deliverable doesn't need to have its own milestones. Doing so only makes it difficult for managers to manage projects.
Balancing the entire project into neat milestones that are meaningful is essential to good milestone planning.
- Separating milestones
The whole idea of milestones is that they pin down tasks within a specific timeframe and mark important project stages.
If the milestones are kept entirely separate from the project timeline, then there would be no point in creating them in the first place.
A project manager should be able to visualize all their project management activity together, complete with milestones, so that they can effectively carry out the project.
The bottom line
Milestone planning requires a lot of effort, and unforeseen circumstances are always present in every kind of planning.
However, successful milestone planning can help managers effectively keep every team member on track and achieve successful outcomes.
Completing milestones lets project managers delegate the remaining tasks, make sure they are on track with the project schedule, and plan ahead of the end milestone that would result in a successful project.
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