If you’re a fan of project management (and we hope you are), you know that organized plans save time and resources. In fact, the Project Management Institute found that “organizations that invest in project management waste 13 times less money because their strategic initiatives are completed more successfully.”
Not all project plans are created equal, however. Let’s say you’re working on your latest plan. It has goals, tasks, task owners, and deadlines. It has dependencies and deliverables. You’re confident that it’s a work of project planning art that will carry your team to success. But did you remember to include project milestones?
If your project doesn’t have milestones, then you’re doing yourself a disservice. Project milestones simplify your role as project leader because they give your team marks to aim for while also showing stakeholders your progress at a level they’re interested in. The good news is that project milestones are easy to add to any project (even those already in progress), and they provide multiple benefits.
Let’s look at what project milestones are and what they can do for you.
Project milestones mark specific points along a project’s timeline. They are checkpoints that identify when activities or groups of activities have been completed or when a new phase or activity is launched. You can differentiate milestones from other elements of a timeline because they take no time to complete; think of them as signposts that keep things on track.
Milestones are powerful because they demonstrate forward progress in your project plan. They help motivate and align your team by enabling everyone to view progress and judge priorities. And they help you monitor deadlines, identify important dates, and recognize potential bottlenecks within the project. If you were to strip the tasks from your project timeline, the milestones would still give an outline of the key steps or phases of the project.
It can be easy to confuse project milestones with other aspects of project management, so let’s review the differences.
Goals are what you wish to achieve looking forward; milestones take a look back at what you’ve already done. Think of milestones as rungs on the ladder to achieving a goal.
Example: A marketing team working on company-wide rebranding initiative—a big project with many moving parts—might set a goal to complete the project by the end of the third quarter. They could then use milestones along the way to mark key decisions or activities as complete, such as colors selected, design templates created, launch plan approved, etc.
Milestones often coincide with the start or completion of project phases (such as initiation, planning, execution, and closure). A project phase may take weeks or months to complete, involving multiple tasks and team members; a milestone is a zero-time “checkmark” of major progress that is important to acknowledge and report on.
Example: For a rebranding project, the initiation phase will cover many tasks, such as focus groups to gather ideas on the new branding and creative brainstorming sessions. A milestone at the end of the initiation phase would mark the team’s readiness to move to the planning phase.
A deliverable is a product or result, whereas a milestone is a moment in time. Deliverables are sometimes evidence of the completion of a milestone.
Example: Deliverables for the rebranding project could include the updated style guide PDF and associated logo files. The completion of these projects is worth noting (and even celebrating!), so the marketing manager could add a milestone denoting that achievement.
Tasks are the building blocks of your project, and they take time to achieve. Milestones have no duration and are more like lines in the sand that mark a group of tasks as complete.
Example: A rebranding project will have many smaller and larger tasks, such as creating logos, setting up social media accounts, and writing press releases. A milestone might mark the completion of a group of related tasks.
Project milestones can be added to any type of project plan to help it run smoothly. They can be particularly helpful when it comes to scheduling because milestones will need to be placed alongside the relevant tasks or phases; setting up milestones helps you concentrate on target dates and adjust the project plan as needed.
You can also have fun with milestones! For example, plan celebrations for when major project milestones are checked off. This type of acknowledgment boosts morale and improves engagement.
You can add milestones to a project at any stage, so don’t wait for your next project kickoff to get started. Also, if you have recurring projects, work milestones into your templates now so that you have them in place for the future.
Think of your project milestones as moments in time—rather than objectives, deliverables, or tasks. As such, you should create milestones to represent important checkpoints in your project. Take a look at your project schedule, and pinpoint any checkpoints or important moments. For example, if you’re planning a product launch, you’d likely create milestones to represent finalizing the launch messaging, launching your product web page, and actually launching the product.
There’s no set number of milestones your project should have. Some projects will only have two or three milestones—others might have closer to a dozen. Instead of trying to hit a certain number of milestones, set milestones for important events that are happening during your project’s progress. Remember: milestones should be moments in time—the tasks it takes to hit those milestones should be represented elsewhere in your project.
Because milestones are moments in time and don’t track the processes you need to get to that moment, you should set your milestone deadlines for when the initiative is launched or goes live. For example, if you’re planning a virtual event, your milestone should be set for the day the virtual event takes place—not the prep work it takes to get there. Milestones denote important moments in your project progress, and help you gauge whether or not your project was successful.
A project milestone marks a significant point in time. You can use milestones in your projects to represent events such as key deliverables received, project kickoff completed, final plan approved, requirements review completed, design approved, project phase completed, and much more.
Let’s walk through four examples of how milestones can work for your team.
Setting milestones is a good start, but you won’t reap the full benefit until you track and report on them. Milestones are great reporting tools for communicating with stakeholders who don’t want or need the nitty-gritty of task-level updates. This “broad stroke” data helps you instantly see which phases have been completed, if the project is on track to hit its future key milestones, and how close you are to your goal. You can still drill down to a more granular level, looking at the tasks tied to your milestones; this can help you see which steps and owners helped you get to a milestone or identify roadblocks that might have been in the way.
Tracking milestones lets you home in on your most important work and see the true status of projects, while giving you the knowledge to share project progress confidently. Make sure your project management tool includes status updates that report on milestones, so you can keep team members and stakeholders in the loop about what your team has accomplished and what milestone you’re working towards next.
Sometimes, your team will miss your milestone deadline. That happens—but depending on the importance of your milestone, doing so can really set you back and delay your initiative or launch.
If you don’t hit your milestone goals, take a step back with your team to figure out why you missed the milestone. Was your milestone incorrectly scheduled, or too ambitious? Look at the tasks and deliverables that were contributing to your milestone. Was one of them delayed? Oftentimes, with so many moving pieces, it’s hard to know exactly what’s happening when. To prevent these types of mistakes in the future, look for a project management tool that has a visual component, so you can see your projects in different ways like timelines, calendars, and Kanban boards.
Setting milestones is an art, not a science. There’s no exact right or wrong way to do it. That being said, these are some of the common pitfalls that teams encounter when they first start setting milestones:
Now you know what project milestones are and how they can positively impact the planning, execution, and reporting of your projects. Consider them another tool in your project management belt—one you’re sure to get a lot of use out of. Once you start planning with milestones, you’ll never want to build a project plan without them.
Are you ready to get started planning with project milestones? You’ll need the right work management tool first. Check out Asana, a leader in the market and the best work management tool for your team.
How to write an effective project status report
Project status reports allow you to update your team and stakeholders on the progress of your projects. In our article, we cover how to write a great project status report, including a template and examples.