13 milestones in project management (with definitions)
Using milestones to track the progress and measure the performance of teams is crucial to ensuring your project's overall success. While developing the processes, you may use milestones to trigger specific actions, such as a budget appraisal or external audit. Understanding the functions of milestones can improve project delivery and enhance your effectiveness as a project manager. In this article, we explain milestones in project management, list 13 types of project management milestones and explain key steps you can take to choose which may be suitable for your project.
What are milestones in project management?
Milestones in project management are tools you can use to reference a specific process point, or a partial goal, in a project. An effective milestone clearly describes when you want to achieve it and marks specific events along a project timeline, moving you closer to completing your larger goals. They rarely impact the duration of projects, as their primary purpose is simply to organise all processes, important events and checks.
Typically, milestones can serve several functions in project management. One of their external functions is that you can use them to show stakeholders how the project is advancing. An important internal function is that it allows you to break down the workload into smaller chunks and individual tasks that you can then delegate to your team members.
Types of project management milestones
Understanding different project management milestones can help you plan, schedule and measure your project's successes. Some milestones are more suitable for certain projects than others, so it's important to identify the options that work best for your situation. Here are some common milestones in project management:
1. Project approval
Many project managers choose project approval as their first milestone. It marks the beginning of a project and allows it to move forward. If you're working on an internal project, this milestone is likely to come from your department's director or the CEO. For external projects, the approval typically comes from a client and takes place when your employer successfully signs a contract with that client. When you reach this milestone, it's usually time to start planning processes and inputting elements into a project management tool of your choice.
2. Requirements review
During one of the first stages of a project, you're likely to work on developing and defining project requirements. In many cases, this is a lengthy process that requires gathering information through client meetings and review sessions. Once the client reaches their conclusion and provides clear requirements that they have, the project team begins interpreting them. The final goal is to present the client with clear documentation that outlines and describes all project requirements, your available resources and processes.
This milestone focuses on a specific working environment that you may want to create to support the project team while they complete different tasks to achieve the main objective. The 'environment' may refer to building a physical work environment, such as a lab, or a virtual one, such as a web application the team can use to deliver their work. If you're considering including this milestone, it's important to place it in your project's early stages. This way, when the team begins working on the project, they have access to important resources and tools, even if they're in beta stages.
This milestone marks the completion of the planning process. Typically, an effective project plan includes all schedules, timelines and objectives. It also clearly describes each task and its deadline. A plan is an essential tool that allows all team members to better understand their role in a project and track their progress. It also serves as an essential tool for the project manager because it allows you to determine if everything goes as planned.
To complete this milestone, it's important to gather and distribute all necessary resources to team members and supervisors. Typically, resources are all the tools, documents and information that team members may require when performing their tasks in a project. Here are some example project resources to consider:
equipment and tools
access to project-specific software
You can also consider setting milestones for important decisions that allow the project to move forward. For example, your project may reach this milestone when the product development tool selects a new vendor or supplier. If the project requires specific permits to continue, you may also consider including it under this milestone.
7. Design approval
This milestone marks the approval of sketches, web designs, prototypes or anything that directly impacts the design of the product or service you're working on. It typically represents a moment when all project managers, clients and other stakeholders review and approve a project design. If you're working on a particularly complex project, it usually makes sense to break this milestone down and create separate design reviews and design approval milestones.
Milestones are helpful for representing the completion of certain processes in a project. For example, the commencement of testing a commercial airline's engines represents a major event towards the delivery of the aircraft to its buyer. Similarly, if the main goal for a project is to deliver new software to a client, this milestone may represent the beginning of the testing stage.
If you're working on an internal project that aims to modernise how the company operates, you may consider including this important milestone. The 'training' milestone may represent the beginning or completion of training activities for employees who are going to work with the new processes, products or software that the project aims to deliver. It's an important step that allows you to make sure people know how to use it properly while allowing them to improve their qualifications within the company.
You can also choose to set milestones that mark the delivery of work to the client. This milestone usually marks a significant team accomplishment. It's also likely to mark later stages of the project and can signify that the final completion stage has begun.
This milestone usually represents the completion of a project report or meetings on key project events. Although many project managers choose to schedule this milestone in the final stage, it's important to nurture and maintain communication throughout the duration of all stages. Making sure that all team members can easily communicate with each other while developing and delivering work may have a positive impact on their productivity and effectiveness.
Related: A guide to the 7 Cs of communication
Consider choosing this milestone to represent critical events in the project's life cycle. For example, it can mark the commencement of on-site work. A ceremony allows the project team to look back at how far they've come and rewards them for their efforts. It's also a great way to motivate people to achieve the next milestone.
13. Project completion
This milestone usually represents the completion of all tasks and successful delivery to a client. It's the biggest milestone in a project that highlights the efforts of project managers and team members. After reaching this milestone, you may review everyone's individual performance to distribute additional rewards to the project team, for example, in the form of annual bonuses.
How to choose milestones for your project
Choosing relevant milestones for your project can help you better organise the workflow. It can also be useful for accurately measuring your team's progress. Here's what you can do to determine your project milestones:
1. Consider important dates and deadlines
The first thing you can do to determine milestones for your project is to look for important deadlines. This could be any date that the client has mentioned in the project brief or in their contract with your employer. These dates can provide guidance and help you schedule smaller milestones in later stages of the planning process.
2. Identify sources of delay
Sticking to tight deadlines can be ineffective because there may be some unexpected issues or events that delay the project you're working on. Identifying potential sources of delay is therefore similar to assessing risks. It allows you to calculate more flexible delivery dates that are still within the preferred schedule. You can then choose the most suitable milestones for your project based on your findings.
3. Start with multiple milestones and add more over time
Consider starting with a few milestones that shape the overall idea of the project and adding other smaller milestones as the project develops. This way, you can observe the project team's performance during the first stages of the project and assess which additional milestones could be useful. It's important to confront the reality of the progress of your project with the expectations that you initially had and adjust your chosen milestones accordingly.
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