What actually is a milestone?

‘Milestones’ are a much used ingredient in a lot of projects – for good reasons. Milestones are important points on the project’s timeline. One could also call them checkpoints.

Generally speaking a milestone can be an event or a point in time, where

  • something is finished
  • something is started
  • a decision has to be made, as in how to proceed.

Most of the time, milestones occur at the end of a project phase. But there can be additional milestones in between.
Milestones never define a stretch of time, but always a point on the timeline.

Look at the following example:

  • final test’ is a task, an activity, which takes a certain stretch of time.
  • final test finished’, however, defines a point in time. It is that moment when one can check if the final test has really been finished. This makes it a possible milestone.

What are milestones good for?

Milestones structure the project

They serve as clear points of orientation, define the path the project has to follow until it reaches the end. Only if the milestones have been reached successfully, will the project itself have been a success.

Milestones are points of decision, even regarding the project as a whole

At milestones you may decide if and how the project will proceed. In particular, we are thinking of those milestones at the end of a project phase:

  • Will the project be continued?
  • Do we have to change the plan?
  • Which of the possible alternatives will be chosen?
  • Will the steering committee approve?
  • Milestones help to ensure quality

Defining milestones will force you and your team to look more closely at your progress. Instead of rushing through all phases of the project without reflecting, you will halt at these checkpoints. Are you still on track? Do your results meet the crucial requirements?

Milestones motivate

Who does not know this feeling: You reached a milestone in time – certainly a feeling of achievement. And don’t we all work that extra bit harder, if the deadline of a milestone is approaching?

Milestones help to steer and control the project

Are you still on schedule? Sometimes, if there are numerous phases and work packages, that can be really hard to know. If you break down your work into milestone and their deadlines, however, it will be much easier to gauge where you are at . You will learn quickly when you will reach a milestone and what the consequences for the following phases of the project will be.

How many milestones should a project have?

Simple answer: as many as you think are useful. Each project is different.
OK, there are some guidelines.

  • Usually there are at least as many milestones as there are project phases plus one extra: One for the start of the project, and one at the end of each phase.
  • Within the different phases there could be more milestones. So if you think you need any more, just add them.
  • Early on, when you set up the rough plan for your project, you might only define the most important and obvious checkpoints. However once you go deeper into detail, you might add more milestones in between.
  • But please don’t overdo it. Otherwise no-one will take your project’s milestones serious. It is not the goal to finish every project task with a milestone. They should only mark the really crucial steps and decisions.

Next week we will give some hints on how to best define and write down your milestones.

Alexander Blumenau (*1972) is a portfolio and project manager. With over a decade of international project experience he has been in charge as head of R&D in high-tech industries.
Originally Alexander started his career as a scientist and holds a doctoral degree in Physics. Besides his interests in project management, company processes and structures, he works as a free author and arts photographer.