Picture yourself about to embark on some epic feat — like running a marathon or watching every single episode of Game of Thrones. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the miles, stories, or characters before you even start. But if you break the project into bite-sized chunks? It suddenly seems a lot more manageable. The same goes for projects.
Every project is a journey, and like all journeys, it’s more fun when you know where you’re going.
Project milestones are essential points of progress that help everyone involved visualize how things will happen. They can use them to set goals for themselves and their coworkers and, ultimately, feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of the project. They’re also helpful for making the project feel more doable.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at project milestones, then walk you through creating your very first milestone chart. Let’s get into it!
What are project milestones?
A project milestone is a step in the process of any given project.
For example, if you’re planning a wedding, it’s traditional to have a few milestones along the way:
- Choosing your venue and caterer
- Hiring a photographer
- Receiving your marriage license from the county clerk’s office, and so on.
When you start a project in a work context, the team uses project milestones to keep the team on the same page and working toward the same goal. It’s important for everyone to understand where they fit into the process and what’s expected of them at each stage. Here are some examples of typical project milestones:
- Team roles and responsibilities assignments
- Beginnings of different tests
- Phase completions
As you can see, these are all activities related to the deliverables you want at the end of each phase. Milestones usually come at the end of each phase — but not always. They can happen at any point in time to serve as a checkpoint or check-in. This can help you see whether the project is ahead of schedule, behind it, or right where you want it to be.
What is a project milestone chart?
A project milestone chart is a tool that shows how your milestones relate to one another. It can also include due dates and any other relevant information.
Milestone charts tell you if anything unexpected happens with any one part of your projects, so they don’t affect other steps since there are only overlaps between two steps within one phase. If something does happen, you’ll know who needs to deal with it and where the problem occurred so you can fix it and continue with your project.
Why are milestone charts important?
Project milestone charts can help you visualize how your milestones work together to reach an outcome.
This is perfect when you need something that isn’t too complicated but will give you all the information about where each step stands in relation to another step. This is especially true when different individuals work on separate parts of the project and may not understand what everyone else is doing. This way, everyone knows exactly what needs tdoing, how much time it will take, and the dependencies of other milestones.
Milestones’ importance in decision-making
They are used to mark progress toward the end goal, but they are also there to show how far along everything is — and managers can use this information to make smart decisions about what should happen next to bring the project towards completion.
For example, suppose your milestone chart shows that something isn’t coming together correctly because you’re missing key materials or resources at a certain point. In that case, the manager may decide it would be best to extend the deadline for that part of the project so that everything can come together.
Milestones’ importance in finance
Recording milestones on the chart helps managers to put a clear value on what they’ve achieved, or more importantly, on what they haven’t yet achieved at any given time since the project started.
This information is not only helpful in terms of deciding whether or not to extend deadlines on certain parts of the project, but it’s also helpful in showing investors exactly where their money is going — and how much return they are getting for their investment.
Investors generally want to see very clearly defined milestones with values attached to them every step of the way. Pair that with an estimated schedule for when the team will meet these milestones.
Finally, project milestones help you (and the team) focus.
A milestone is marked by scheduling an ending point for a specific sub-phase so you can shift your focus to new goals without worrying about the old step anymore.
How to plan milestones with a milestone chart
There are a few ways to plot a milestone chart:
- Plotting milestones on Gantt charts via Excel or a dedicated project management tool (our recommended option)
- Adding them to a project timeline template, like the one below
Created in Cacoo
Before you do anything, you’ll need to decide which method is right for you. Namely: Do you go Excel, or do you use a project management tool?
Using an Excel spreadsheet is one option, but you’ll need to put more work into maintaining it. You’ll also want to be careful when adding milestones by hand: forgetting any one of them could lead to huge problems down the line. Be sure to take your time creating each milestone and double-check that your team added it correctly before moving on to the next. There’s no automatic project tracking, notifications, integrations, version control, or reporting features — so you’ll have to stay on top of all of this yourself. The bottom line? It’s just a bit outdated.
We recommend using a project management tool instead. They usually have built-in templates that work well for milestone schedules, plus all of the above-mentioned features. Once you get used to entering milestones in the system, updating them will become much easier.
How to create a milestone chart
Creating a milestone chart is easy with project management tools. And it just takes three steps:
- 1st Step: Planning milestones
- 2nd Step: Creating a Gantt chart
- 3rd Step: Sharing with your team and stakeholders
Let’s unpack these in a little more detail.
Step 1 — Planning milestones
Project planning is no different than any other type of planning. The first step is to brainstorm and list all milestones you can think of at the top level (mind mapping and mind mapping software can come in handy here).
- Which tasks mark the beginning or end of a phase?
- What are the critical tasks?
- Which tasks or phases need stakeholder approval?
Once you’ve listed these down, it’s time to arrange them into a timeline and determine the lead time between milestones. This is where a Gantt chart comes in handy.
Step 2 — creating a Gantt chart
A Gantt chart is a type of bar chart that reams typically use to visualize a project schedule.
Milestones are placed on the Gantt chart according to their scheduled or projected time of completion, starting with the milestone at the top left. The horizontal bars with segments represent the length of each of the tasks’ duration.
Example of a Gantt chart in Backlog
You’ll notice that sometimes there are things that need to happen in parallel. It’s not always possible to plan this out with complete accuracy, but you’ll get a feel for things as the project progresses.
Top tip: With project management software, calculating your critical path, dependencies, and lead times are all done automatically, which makes things a lot easier.
Step 3: Sharing your milestone chart with your team
Project success depends on collaboration and communication. So having everyone on the same page is key.
Your milestone chart should be fair game for all members of the team to view, discuss and share so everyone knows what’s coming up next. This is where project management software comes in handy again. Rather than your chart spreadsheet being ignored, edited, or lost in a heap of different versions, you can create one version on your PM platform, share it with your team and collaborate on the plan. Set permissions, organize priorities, invite people to work on tasks… it’s all handled instantly. Easy!
There you have it! Your project milestone chart is complete! With your milestones planned out clearly and concisely, it’s time for execution. And with a clear strategic plan, there should be no surprises or people questioning what needs doing next.
Now that you’re equipped with the basics of how to make your own project milestone chart, it’s time to take action. Pick an upcoming project on your list and get creating. Good luck!