What are project milestones? Things you didn’t know about them

Even with all the technology available, still less than 50% of projects are completed within the initial budget, while only one in every three projects is completed on time. If you can see some of these statistics coming true in your company, we have good news for you - project milestones will help you, and in this article I will show you how.

Arkadiusz Terpiłowski

Co-Founder

Project Management

25/8/2022

Project milestones are essential for project scheduling

Table of contents

What are milestones in project management? 

A milestone in project management is a clearly defined point in the duration of a project when its progress is measured and compared to its ultimate goal. 

In general, a project milestone is chosen to emphasize an important achievement in the project schedule, or a completion of its significant part. Additionally, they are also a good time for monitoring project’s statistics and solving any problems that may arise in the processes. They can also act as valuable information for team members looking to plan the project phases better. 

What’s the difference between milestones and…

Goals?

Project goal is the most general of the terms we are going to describe in this paragraph. That’s because they define the ultimate objective of the project, while milestones focus on its consecutive steps. 

For example, an ultimate goal for the IT company would be to create a functional app. In this case, milestones would mark the creation of different features or other key parts of the software included in the project plan. 

Deliverables? 

Deliverables are more connected to the milestones in project management than other terms we have defined in this section. That is because deliverables are the actual result of completing a milestone. 

For example, if you are running an IT company, a milestone can be a development of a certain feature for an app. Deliverables, on the other hand, include all the individual parts that went into creating that feature - for example, frontend, backend, or design. 

Task? 

In milestone planning, a task is the smallest unit of all the terms connected with project milestones. That is because milestones are actually divided into tasks that are simply consecutive steps that lead to a completion of a milestone as a whole. In other words, a task is generally a small action or set of actions completed by assigned team members or project team. 

For example, when a project milestone is a development of a certain feature, and the deliverables of this feature include frontend, a task can be a creation of a particular button. 

Project milestones - examples 

The milestones of a project usually represent critical achievements in project management, such as: 

  • start or end dates for different stages of the project, 
  • a feature or a part of a project being approved by the customer, 
  • developing key features for the project, 
  • stakeholders’ meetings, 
  • major deliveries or releases. 

However, the final elements of milestone planning can be very different from the examples included in that list - ultimately, everything depends on the type of project, its life cycle and its main objectives. 

Creating project milestones - common mistakes

Best case scenario is that you will never encounter incorrect any mishaps in project management and your project schedule will contain no mistakes and not a single wrong project milestone. However, it is best to know what they look like, should such mishaps occur in your project. 

Common mistakes in creating project plan with its milestones include: 

  • mistaking goals, deliverables or tasks for project milestones. Creating a button for an app is not a milestone, and neither is completing the project! Avoid adding such key points to the project timeline - they can be misleading.
  • incorrect task dependencies. Whether you work in agile or waterfall, all your key deliverables and tasks are somehow connected. Failing to identify these connections may make the project milestones impossible to achieve. 
  • not using project scheduling tools. They are capable of turning raw data into much more comprehensible Gantt chart and tables, and they are the best choice for improving information flow in the company. 
  • creating too few or too many milestones. It results in creating either too general or too detailed project schedules that (in both cases) are difficult to understand and break down into tasks and deliverables. As a result, you may miss some key milestones and not include them in the project schedule!
  • lack of monitoring. As every project manager knows, there are no projects that are completed with no changes to the initial plan. Monitoring the entire project, as well as project phases with a management tool allows executives to check the progress and react to any obstacles in the way. 
Project progress report can help you monitor project milestones
Monitoring for project milestones can be done in project progress reports - just like the one available in Primetric.

How to define project milestones for your project? 5 questions to ask

Alright, by definition everything sounds quite clear - but what if a project manager is not sure whether his project milestones are correct?

In that case, they should ask themselves this 5 questions: 

  1. Is the project milestone providing the customer with extensive information on the provider's effort? 
  2. Does the milestone indicate what tasks and deliverables need to be completed for the milestone to be executed correctly? 
  3. Can the milestone act as a major marker for the schedule or project phases? 
  4. Can the milestone be used to assess project performance? 
  5. Does the milestone include risk analysis? 

If you answered yes to all of these questions, your milestone is likely to be correct. Congratulations! 

Why are milestones important in project management? 

Project milestones are sometimes disregarded by those who are already overwhelmed with goals, schedules and other objectives. However, milestones in a project management provide specialists and their managers with quite different values they can benefit from. 

Benefits for C-level executives

While project milestones may seem as an idea that can appeal only to project managers, it can also be very useful for PMOs, COO, or even CFOs. With such checkpoints in place, they can: 

  • improve their estimations based on project planning, 
  • monitor the project progress without delving into their details, 
  • find projects that are at risk of delays and act on the information, 
  • check the project budget during the project, not only at its end, 
  • find the best performing projects, as well as those that are underperforming, 
  • discover weaknesses within the project and improve them in the future. 

Benefits for Project Managers 

Project managers are the ones that work with project milestones on a daily basis. Thanks to them, these specialists can:

  • notice any problems and solve them before they affect the project as a whole, 
  • manage multiple projects without micromanagement, 
  • control the timing and progress of projects, 
  • support the projects when necessary, 
  • keeping the stakeholders informed and help them monitor the project timeline. 

Benefits for employees 

For many employees, project milestones can seem like a looming reminder of all the responsibilities that await them. However, when managed properly, milestones in the project can help project team: 

  • monitor their work in Gantt chart tools for project management, 
  • plan their work efficiently and work towards the chosen goal, 
  • predict any hurdles that may appear in the workflow and discuss them with managers, 
  • get a sense of achievement from their work and improve morale, 
  • stay motivated throughout the project that could otherwise be quite monotonous. 

Benefits for your customers 

Of course, the right project milestone can also result in numerous benefits for your customers - especially those who expect to see a perfect project plan. For example, they:

  • help them monitor the development of their projects, 
  • mark the times when they need to evaluate its subsequent parts, 
  • allow for better budget management, as project milestones are often connected with settlements.

How to identify milestones in a project? 

If you read this article carefully, you already know what milestones are. But how to tell what they are for your particular project? 

1. Prepare a project scope 

Nearly every project management process with identifying project scope - and the process for identifying milestones is not an exception. 

Importantly, in this case you need to have more than just a general outline of all the activities. At this point, you should also define: 

  • list of specific goals and deliverables for the entire project and its subsequent stages, 
  • an overview of tasks and skills necessary to complete them, 
  • estimated cost of each and every operation included in the project, 
  • preferred deadlines for the entire project and its stages, 
  • acceptance criteria, 
  • project constraints. 

These details create a comprehensive Work Breakdown Structure that is a base for project milestones. 

2. Choose the most important checkpoints

Having estimated the deliverables needed to complete each phase of the project, you can clearly see when some tasks are completed and others start. However, not all of them are relevant for you - some of them are more important for the project success than others. 

At this point, don’t consider any tasks that: 

  • have no impact on the usability of the final product, 
  • will not cause the consecutive stages of the project to be delayed, 
  • are not critical for the project in any way, 
  • do not show the amount of work put into the completion of the stage of the process.

Then, assign start and end dates to the operations that are left on your list. 

After that, you can take a look at our milestones examples and assign them to the actions and stages on the timeline. Feel free to add other propositions, if you feel like your project should focus on something else. 

3. Visualize and communicate project milestones

Choosing the milestones is not enough - you also need to make sure that every project manager and specialist is aware of their existence. 

To ensure that everyone has access to the project milestones, we recommend using project portfolio management tools that base their visualizations on Gantt charts and calendars. They allow project managers to display the project duration in the calendar, along with all its details - just like it is shown in Primetric on the screenshot below. 

Project milestones can be monitored in a project calendar
Project calendar with phases and allocations

Importantly, in Primetric you can also limit the visibility of certain project details to ensure that confinent data will be seen by managers’ eyes only. 

Additionally, visualizations serve a few equally important purposes. With them in place, you can: 

  • monitor the worked time logged by the specialists, 
  • see the stages people are assigned to, 
  • browse planned, actual and draft allocations, as well as projects, 
  • check the public holidays in the weeks to come.

As a result, using specialized tools for project milestones management provides you with a comprehensive overview of your actions and improves your chance of success. 

Managing project milestones: key objectives

Choosing the right milestones for the project is not enough - you should also know how to improve them and how to manage them once they are in place.

We recommend all the project managers to: 

  1. Minimize the risk. When creating a project plan, do not assume that everything will go as planned; leave some room for error. Then, anticipate things that can go wrong, avoid hurdles and add some additional time for the unexpected. Worst case scenario, you will finish the project earlier! 
  2. Manage project portfolio as a whole. Unless your company is really small, you probably have more than just one project on your hands. Use the information from all of them to create a plan that’s compatible with all your operations. 
Project portfolio in Primetric
Project portfolio in Primetric
  1. Settle the work in packages. Do not bill your customers every time you make a change in the system! Instead, plan work in bundles and bill your customer for a larger chunk of work. 
  2. Monitor progress of all the projects. Monitoring just one project is often not enough, as problems in one set of operations can affect other endeavors. Having an overview of all the projects can help you discover problems, as well as the solutions, before the matters become more pressing. 

Milestones vs cash flow: how do they affect budgeting? 

There’s no project without a budget - and the same rule also applies to the project milestones. 

Milestones are often thought to be all about workflow. However, workflow is inherently connected to the costs and profit it generates. Each phase has its costs, rates, and finally, incomes - just like it is shown in an estimation from Primetric below. 

Milestones are often connected with finances - just like in Primetric
Phases, estimates and costs for a project displayed in Primetric

In many cases, milestones are even tied to: 

  • billing types and schedules (payment is only done when a milestone is completed),
  • payment for each phase (a single milestone or a set of milestones), 
  • payment for each installment, if applicable. 

As a result, project milestones can - and should - also include financial requirements, such as expected expenses, incomes, as well as overheads. Thanks to such a solution, they can not only act as a base for project schedules, but also as a plan of payments for accounting purposes. 

Do you want to introduce project milestones to your organization? 

No problem - it can be done in a flash! 

First, browse our other articles on project management and learn about: 

and then simply delve into practice and test Primetric right now!

Arkadiusz Terpiłowski

Co-Founder

Arkadiusz is Head of Growth and Co-founder at Primetric. Prior to that, Arkadiusz was at the helm of his own software development company where he oversaw operations. A great enthusiast of process improvements, his personal mission is to make software companies more profitable and efficient on their path to growth.

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