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What are project milestones in project management?

PostsProject management
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

February 19, 2021

Big things can be intimidating. Whether that’s learning a new language, building a house, or eating a whole birthday cake — thinking about conquering the thing in its entirety makes us rightly feel a bit, well, scared.

Breaking things down into bitesize chunks is one way to make the project feel more manageable. It makes planning easier — and setting small goals psychologically helps us feel more motivated. Eating an entire cake in one sitting? Not so fun. Eating a birthday cake one slice at a time? Challenge accepted! The same goes for projects.

In this article, we’re going to take a look at project milestones — including what they are, why they’re important, and how to add milestones to your next project.

What are milestones in project management?

Milestones are key moments in a project. They’re a way of breaking up a big project into smaller, manageable tasks, where each milestone represents the completion of one phase of work. Think of it as a moment for managers (and the team) to pause and take stock of where they are and how far they’ve come.

Why should you track project milestones?

1. Keep on top of deadlines

Every project is made up of deadlines — usually lots of them. Not everyone needs to know when each of these has been met. Highlighting the main deliverables and turning them into milestones in your project schedule means anyone who wants a top-level view of progress can see what’s going on at a glance.

Top Tip: Milestones should reflect key moments in the project and make sense to those unfamiliar with the granular details, like stakeholders, top-level execs, and sponsors.

2. Identify delays or bottlenecks

When things are going belly-up, the worst possible thing you can do is bury your head in the sand. Project milestones can stop you from doing this. Why? Because they force you to pause and assess the project’s progress periodically.

3. Create a solid plan

Tasks are the building blocks of every project, and there tend to be a lot of them. Mapping out milestones makes it easier to plan ahead. It also helps you manage expectations: Stakeholders, sponsors, and high-level executives might not know (or want to know) every single detail. Mapping out milestones helps them plan and understand your schedule quickly and easily.

What’s the difference between a task and a milestone?

Every project is made up of tasks that take a set amount of time to complete. Milestones, on the other hand, are about moments that indicate forward progress. Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you distinguish between the two. If you answer ‘yes’ to any of these, it’s a milestone, not a task.

  1. Is it an important moment in the project that indicates progress?
  2. Will this impact the final deadline?
  3. Is it a deliverable?
  4. Will it need to be reviewed by senior managers/stakeholders/other teams?

Top Tip: Don’t get milestones mixed up with tasks. Do that, and you’ll end up with far too many milestones and lose the benefits they bring.

What’s the difference between a milestone and a goal?

Goals are things you want to achieve in the future. They could be expressed as KPIs, or simply be an overarching set of things you want to achieve by the end of the project. For example, your business’ goal might be to open a new store. The route to achieving that goal will be made up of several tasks, split into different milestones.

What’s the difference between a milestone and a project phase?

Project phases often pair up with milestones, such as project planning and project kick-off. A phase is a stretch of time that encompasses multiple tasks. A milestone is a checkmark between one phase and the next and doesn’t have a time duration.

What’s the difference between a milestone and a project deliverable?

A project deliverable is the result of various tasks. For example, if you ran a bakery, a deliverable might be to make a wedding cake. A milestone is a moment in time that marks the completion of that — kind of like an event to celebrate the achievement.

How to work out where your project milestones are

Milestones are essentially checkpoints. Each milestone marks the end of one phase and the beginning of a new one. When it comes to deciding where exactly to put them, it depends on lots of different factors.

For example, your own experience, the opinions of those on your team (as well as their experience), and the resources available to you. Typically, when plotting milestones, project managers draw from all three, and in some cases, the experiences of experts. The more planning you put into your milestone placing, the smoother your project will be.

Here are some project milestones examples

  • Creating the project charter
  • Completion of a critical task or deliverable
  • Stakeholder approvals
  • Important meetings
  • Hitting an important KPI goal

What should you do once a milestone has been reached?

Breezing past your milestones is a reason to pop open the bubbly, and we don’t mean just pouring yourself a glass. Celebrating wins with the team helps everyone feel involved and motivated. It’s also an opportunity for managers to thank individuals for their hard work.

But before you do celebrate, there’s some housekeeping to do. Make sure you’ve achieved every goal in that phase. If you end up having to redo something or go back, it’ll be a bit of an anticlimax (not to mention demotivating for everyone involved). You should also take stock of how that particular phase went: Did you hit your deadlines and stay within budget? This info can help you plan for the next phase with more accuracy. Going over budget or scope isn’t the end of the world — and milestones give you the opportunity to catch them early and get things back on track.

What should you do if you miss your milestone deadline?

Deadlines get missed; these things happen. Luckily, having milestones marked up means you’ll spot things sooner rather than later — and that’s a reason to clink glasses in itself. But that victory feels hollow when your project’s headed for potential disaster. Here’s what to do.

First, take a step back and assess where you are and how you got there. Was it an issue with milestone scheduling? Look into the tasks, see where the delays were and why, and use this info to plan the next one a little more realistically. Perhaps you need more time, or maybe the solution is more people on the job. Analyzing failures can help you avoid them in the next phase.

How to record project milestones

The first step is to split your project up into tasks and subtasks. From there, you can start grouping them into milestones. Gantt charts are the most popular way to map out project tasks and milestones. They’re easy to understand and just as easy to make (especially if you’re using a template). Gantt charts show you:

  • The full project schedule at a glance
  • The time allotted to each task, as well as task dependencies
  • Task progress
  • Assigned team members

Example of a Gantt chart inBacklog

Backlog, our own project management tool, comes with Gantt chart templates that make it easy to plot and manage milestones. Here are some other features that make your life easier:

  • Easily create Gantt charts and add milestones at the click of a button. No need for spreadsheets or update emails.
  • Get automatic notifications that let you know a milestone is approaching (and has passed).
  • Be part of a collaborative community where you can find news, updates, and support.
  • Assign tasks that team members act upon and prioritize them according to their urgency.
  • Visualize performance metrics with things like burndown charts and other Agile tools.
  • Get an instant overview of progress thanks to filterable dashboards.

Backlog makes it easy to create and track project milestones and collaborate with your team so nothing slips through the cracks. It has all the features you need to collaborate as a team — and best of all? It lets you manage all your work via one easy-to-use interface your team will love.



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