Work management May 30, 2022 8 MIN READ

Why You Need Milestones in Project Management

“Remember to celebrate milestones as you prepare for the road ahead.” – Nelson Mandela

Just as the original term ‘milestone’ denotes a marker indicating distance traveled, so milestones in project represent a task or activity completed so far. But they are actually far more useful and versatile than that. In this post, we define project milestones, and explore why they’re an essential part of the project management process.

What is a project milestone?

At their simplest, milestones are specific points within a project that measure progress. They delineate project phases and serve as checkpoints on your project timeline. Similar to a video game where you reach a checkpoint after completing a quest or a major stage in a level, milestones help you easily identify which phase your project is in and how far you are from completing it.

However, more than just markers, project milestones are an invaluable management and scheduling tool. Acting as signal posts which mark significant events or branching decision points, they’re used for events such as start and end dates, external reviews, budget checks, or submissions of major deliverables.

Milestones vs other project components

Whereas ‘tasks’ break down a project’s work into manageable parts, milestones break down its timeline into phases. This helps project managers plan, schedule, and execute the phases. A task has a duration, or a time estimate attached to it, while a milestone typically doesn’t.

‘Goals’ are the result you want to achieve in the future, whereas milestones show what you have already achieved towards the goal. Goals define where you’re going, whereas milestones indicate whether you’re on track to reach them. For example, a project for building an online education platform might have a goal to release three new courses, but a milestone when it reaches 100,000 subscribers.

‘Deliverables’ are outputs of the project, such as a report or prototype, and can be internal (for use among project teams) or external (provided to a client or stakeholder). A deliverable is a quantifiable result, whereas a milestone is an important moment in the project’s timeline. Sometimes, however, these can overlap. For example, completing the first prototype is also a milestone.

The benefits of milestones

Better planning and structuring
By marking important dates and events, milestones provide a way to more accurately estimate the time it will take to complete a project. This enables you to better calculate slack by segmenting the project timeline into intervals to control and track progress. Milestones are used in scheduling methodologies, such as the Critical Path Method, and in project management tools, such as the Gantt chart. They are also an important element of project documents, such as the project schedule, project charter, and project plan.

Improved time management
Most of the time it’s crucial to hit your project deadlines, and milestones help you complete the work within the planned period of time. They enable you to check whether you’re on track, such as indicating whether you’ve completed one quarter of the project within a quarter of the allotted time. Milestones are also visible to the entire team, so they can also manage their time better.

Better identification and handling of bottlenecks
You know what work is needed to achieve a milestone. If you reach a milestone deadline and haven’t achieved everything required, then you know action is required to catch up. It’s better to find out at this stage rather than as the final project deadline approaches. Like tasks, milestones can be linked so that the current phase cannot begin until the completion of the previous phase. This sequencing of tasks gives team members who are working on the impeding task sufficient notice to finish on time, so as not to hold other team members up. Also, where there are unavoidable obstacles and delays, it prevents others from beginning work on later phases before it’s appropriate to do so. The Gantt chart is one of the easiest ways to visualize milestones, while also showing the tasks which might be delaying them.

Maintained motivation
Milestones are great for celebrating achievements. If a milestone has been reached, it’s because the project team has executed something well, such as pulling together to complete a project phase on time. Celebrating success causes the brain to release dopamine, which makes team members feel good about their achievements. This, in turn, helps maintain motivation and productivity throughout the project.

Improved communication with stakeholders
Milestones are useful when communicating with stakeholders because they tend to be interested in broad strokes that indicate whether the project is on schedule, rather than granular details. Milestones can be included on an overall project report to show stakeholders what has been completed, what’s on track to be completed, and what is likely to fall behind.

How to set milestones

Milestones measure progress by breaking the project into phases. There are typically five phases in a project life cycle: initiation, planning, implementation, monitoring and controlling, and closure.

Simplistically, a milestone occurs when you’ve completed everything within each phase. For example, approval of the final product design may be the last step in the planning phase, so this could be a milestone to signify that you’re moving from planning to implementation.

However, milestones don’t need to relate to project phases – you can set any milestone you want to indicate a crucial task, important event, or key deliverable.

Naturally, the more you know about your project, the easier it will be to set milestones, and the more effective you’ll be at setting them. You need a cohesive strategy for your overall project so that you know the basics: the start date and end date, expected deliverables, and the types of tasks involved. If you’ve won a bid for a project, you should have plenty of information available about the tasks and which team members are responsible for them.

Most importantly, you’ll need to figure out the key dates and events throughout the project, such as shareholder meetings and client meetings. These are your milestones. It’s best to add these immediately rather than waiting until you’ve outlined everything else. Once you know the information these respective stakeholders will need to know, and which tasks need to be completed, you can plan the rest of your project around them. If in doubt, don’t be afraid to double-check details with, and ask for more information from team members or clients involved in the project.

It’s important to have the optimum number of milestones for project success. A project with too few milestones has the same problem as the video game with too few checkpoints – it’s difficult to track your progress. Falling behind schedule puts more pressure on your team to catch up, and the longer it takes to realize this, the longer it will take to get back on track. Conversely, too many milestones can overshadow the importance of tasks, generating too much focus on reaching them rather than being productive. Smaller, simpler projects may only need two or three milestones, whereas larger or more complex projects may require as many as 10 or 15.

Once you have set your project milestones, ensure everyone follows their timeline. The project manager is responsible for reiterating the importance of meeting the project’s milestones on time. This is where your project management software will help you keep track of timelines. Since milestones are major events, and often represent key deliverables, they should be readily viewable by all of the project’s stakeholders and therefore included in any project documentation.

Examples of project milestones

Let’s take a look at five of the most common project milestones:

Review of requirements: During the planning phase, you’ll need to work closely with your team – and your client – to ensure everyone is happy with the project plan and that they understand their role within the project.

Project approval: This is a critical milestone in the project’s life cycle. Once the project is approved by all relevant parties, the project team can begin their work.

Design approval: Once you’ve drawn up the project design and presented it to the client or stakeholder, be prepared that the feedback you receive may require you to go back to the drawing broad. Therefore, it’s advisable to build in sufficient time for this milestone.

Project phase milestones: As mentioned earlier, these are the markers between each of your project phases that allow you to distinguish one from another, which can be set using start and/or end dates.

Final approval: Completion of the project.

Meanwhile, examples of individual task milestones include procurement of financing, equipment, or resources, assembly of a project team, project kick-off meeting, finalization of a business plan, completion of a marketing campaign, reaching your first 100 customers, launch of a product, arrival of a product at the warehouse for shipping, signing off the cover artwork for a magazine launch, placement of the final product order.

If you haven’t already used milestones to guide your project, now is the time to start. Once you’ve set your milestones, schedule time to review them. Ensure they are included at appropriate intervals throughout the project, and that your team is on track to reach them. And of course, as Mandela advises, “remember to celebrate milestones” along the way to keep everyone motivated as they play their part in achieving project success.

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