We all know the basic elements of project planning. First comes the overarching goal, then you and other stakeholders establish deliverables, and finally, you come up with a timeline. Pretty straightforward, right?
But what happens when you reach the end of your timeline and not all of the deliverables have been met? Or you haven’t achieved your main goal? Most people are all too familiar with the answer: the project drags on and on. The initial timeline is modified and probably the budget, too. More time, money, and other resources are poured into the project.
Nobody wants that. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to ensure your projects are running on schedule: project milestones.
Traditionally, milestones indicate the distance to a destination. Think mile markers but carved onto a stone. Project milestones have the same purpose, just in a project management setting. They are a tool for tracking your team’s progress towards completing a project. In other words, project milestones tell you how far you’ve come and how far you still have left to go.
In this post, we’ll cover the basics of project milestones, focusing on two questions: What is a project milestone? And why are project milestones an important element of project planning?
What are project milestones?
As mentioned above, project milestones are key indicators of your team’s progress in a project. Milestones typically reflect the crucial moments of a project’s lifecycle. What are the big steps required to complete the project? These should be used as project milestones, not the countless small tasks that go into a project.
This, of course, raises a question. What is the difference between a milestone and a task? It’s simple, really. A task is anything your team has to do to complete a project. Any given project consists of dozens or more tasks.
Milestones, on the other hand, are simply checkpoints. They tell you, your team, and other stakeholders where you are in the grand scheme of things and how close you are to completing your project. Project milestones are often tied to large, crucial tasks.
Let’s take a look at some concrete examples. While your project milestones will be unique to your specific project, we’ve listed some common milestones below:
- Gaining approval from all stakeholders: Without approval and buy-in from stakeholders, your project won’t ever get off of the ground. That’s why securing stakeholder approval is often an early milestone—the rest of the project life cycle depends on it.
- Reporting completed deliverables to the client: Most customers like to be kept in the loop, and milestones are a great way to make that happen. Say your team is developing software for a client. Each time you complete a major deliverable (implementing a new feature, for example), let the client know and demonstrate the new functionality.
- Completing a critical task: Not all tasks are worth attaching a milestone to, but tasks crucial to the success of the project often are.
- The end of the project: Project milestones are meant to keep your team accountable and on track. And to know if you’re on track, you need to know where you’re going. That’s why your final project milestone should be the end date of the project. As you check in at each milestone along the way, you’ll know if you’re on schedule to meet that final deadline.
Key benefits of project milestones
Project milestones make everyone’s life easier—especially the project manager’s. If you choose not to use milestones, your project manager will have to keep track of dozens of small tasks to monitor your team’s progress. Sounds like a recipe for future headaches, right?
If you’re still not convinced of the benefits of project milestones, here are six reasons to make milestones part of your project planning process:
- Help monitor deadlines: Monitoring the progress of a project can be difficult. Deadlines creep up and suddenly you’re behind schedule. Project milestones help your project manager and other team members monitor deadlines and, as a result, stay on schedule.
- Identify potential bottlenecks: Bottlenecks have sunk too many promising projects. Some tasks have to be completed before a project can carry on. If you don’t identify these tasks beforehand, your project will likely get behind schedule, and, as a result, likely go over budget. Nobody wants that. Be sure to consider any potential bottlenecks and use them as project milestones.
- Raises visibility and accountability: When you set clear milestones and—and this part is crucial—track your team’s progress on a visible, accessible platform, you bring everyone into the loop. Team members and other stakeholders can easily see where the project stands and what remains to be done. And when team members know what’s left to do, they can be held accountable.
- Time and resource allocation: As stated many times before, project milestones help your team know what has been done and what needs to be done. This may seem trivial, but that information can help project managers allocate time and resources to the appropriate aspects of the project.
- Maps stakeholder involvement: Stakeholders, especially external ones, won’t be involved at every step of your project. That would be a waste of time. Instead, stakeholders should be looped in and updated at the pivotal moments in a project’s life cycle. Enter milestones. Milestones can help you plan when to loop stakeholders into the process.
- Demonstrates success and completion: If you’re working on a big project, the going will get tough at times. It’s inevitable. Team morale might dwindle. Project milestones can help give your team a sense of accomplishment and progress to keep their spirits up along the way.
How to create project milestones
Before any project comes the project planning phase. During that phase, your team will work with other stakeholders to identify and define the scope of the project and, eventually, come up with a project timeline.
Once you have those two steps complete—defining the scope and setting a timeline—you’re ready to create your project milestones.
A key step in defining a project’s scope is creating a scope document, or statement of work. A scope document essentially outlines all of the necessary deliverables to complete a project, and the work it will require to meet those deliverables. As you begin creating project milestones, have your scope document on hand. Whether you need to identify crucial tasks or key deliverables, the scope document can help you and your team set effective milestones.
Setting project milestones is a pretty straightforward process. Creating effective milestones, however, is a different story. To ensure you’re getting the most from your milestones, keep these four considerations in mind:
- Frequency and timing: It’s tempting to make every task, no matter how small, a milestone. But remember, milestones track key progressions. If you overuse milestones, you’ll simply be monitoring dozens of tasks, defeating the whole purpose of using milestones at all.
- Visibility: Project milestones can help keep everyone on track and in the loop, but only if you make them visible and available. Setting milestones should be a collaborative process. You’ll need input from everyone to set a realistic timeline and goals. And the collaboration shouldn’t stop there. Use Lucidspark to make your milestones available to each team member, as you update, monitor, and track a project.
- Accountability: It doesn’t matter who can see your milestones if you and your team don’t know who is responsible for each one. When it’s clear who is responsible for what, you create accountability. Team members can’t be expected to meet milestones they didn’t know they were responsible for.
- Difficulty: Once you’ve established your milestones, it’s time for some reflection. Are your milestones challenging? And, more importantly, are they achievable? If you answered no to either question, you might need to revise your milestones. Perhaps push a deadline back or reassign responsibility.
With this crash course in project milestones under your belt, you’ve added one more tool to your project management toolbox—and the better prepared you are, the smoother your projects will go!
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