Milestones planning is an integral part of project planning, as milestones are critical building blocks of a project schedule. In the project cycle, a milestone typically marks an important decision point, completion of a major task, and/or the end of a phase. Upcoming milestones may trigger involvement from high-level stakeholders who are not involved in the day-to-day activities of a project.

Types of Milestones

Dates are one way of signaling a milestone. The most common points in a project timeline include:

  • Project start date
  • Project end date
  • Budget review
  • Evaluations
  • External review dates
  • Major input points

Milestones will vary from project to project, and even a seemingly small mundane thing can be a significant milestone. There are some typical milestones that project managers deal with on a regular basis:

  • Patent application approvals
  • Funding received from external investors and/or lenders
  • Recruiting and hiring for integral project positions
  • Installation of equipment, plants, or facilities
  • First prototype rollout

Milestone Planning Guidelines

Utilize a work breakdown structure, which is a tool that helps break deliverables down into sections or components that are more manageable and can be easier to monitor and execute. It aids project managers in organizing and planning a project's activities more accurately. It can be simple or more complex, depending on the specific needs of the project. You can represent the work breakdown structure through a basic outline or a diagram, or you can design something more complex like an animated presentation.

When setting your milestones, remember that an important deliverable could be a designated one.

Importance and Purpose of Milestones

Milestones can be useful communication tools because they mark control points in a project plan. This means that if you took out all the other tasks, someone could still see what is happening and how the project is progressing just by looking at projected milestones. A milestone tells the story of a project with enough detail that it will satisfy those you need to report to. This might be an executive group, project board, and/or the project sponsor.

Components of a Milestone

Parties who are involved with planning the project will need to use their professional judgment to determine what the important and relevant events are that will take place throughout the project, and which of these should be marked as milestones. If an event occurs frequently, it is not automatically significant enough to be marked as a milestone. It's OK to monitor frequent points, but don't assume they have to be milestones.

Don't place milestones too close together; otherwise, they feel more like routines and they lack the impact you want with a milestone. Space them out as evenly as possible, at regular intervals. Don't spread them out too far though; otherwise, it could affect the project's momentum. Keeping milestones too far apart could cause the team to lose their motivation if they can't see the next milestone ahead. For example, a project that takes three to five months to complete might spread out their milestones every two to three weeks.

A milestone should carry some weight and have a degree of risk involved. Incorporating a degree of risk, no matter whether it's small or large, can increase motivation for team members to meet the milestone.

Remember Milestones are Commitments

In most cases, a milestone is more than just an achievement; it's a commitment. Milestones must be met, preferably on time, and they can prove to be excellent learning tools. They inform project managers of where adjustments might need to be made throughout the lifecycle of the project, from the start through the execution phase. The plan sets the pace and tone for your project, and your milestones can serve as indicators whether work is proceeding as scheduled.

Reporting Milestones

When it comes to reporting milestones, it is a fairly straightforward concept, which is typically completed in a table. List the description, its due date, and then the new forecasted date. When you achieve the milestone and mark it complete, you can also add the date in there. Only concentrate on reporting milestones that are coming up or have been completed in that particular month. For the next month, take off milestones that were previously completed so you aren't creating an unnecessarily long report by including work they know was already completed.

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