When projects have tight deadlines, project managers tend to be so focused on getting work done that they don’t stop to evaluate how processes can improve. Every task feels like a race against the clock and a race against the budget. Under that kind of pressure, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, or for work to bottleneck before you can even anticipate it.
This is why milestones are so useful. These small markers give project managers the opportunity to step back, evaluate a project and make any necessary adjustments for improvement.
Milestone, Deliverable or Task?
As you plan your project, it’s important to differentiate between the three key elements of any project: a milestone, a deliverable and a task.
A deliverable is a tangible and measurable outcome of a project, while a milestone is a checkpoint set throughout the plan. Sara-Lu Beckford MSc, PMP, writes that while there is some overlap between milestones and deliverables, milestones also represent major steps on the path to creating a deliverable.
Tasks differ from milestones and deliverables because they are the building blocks that compose the project as a whole. Think about baking a cake when you need to differentiate them. The tasks include gathering the ingredients to pour into the pan or mixing the frosting, the milestones might be when you assemble the tiers or finish decorating it, and the deliverable is the finished cake itself.
Kelly Anthony at Smartsheet instructs readers to use key milestones or deliverables to unlock a new set of tasks. After all, you wouldn’t start frosting your cake until it was out of the oven and cool.
To solve this differentiation problem, Brett Harned created a five-question guide that you can use to determine whether a particular step in a project is a task or a milestone:
- Is this a task or a deliverable?
- Will this impact the final deadline?
- Is this a moment that will indicate forward progress?
- Does this need to be reviewed by stakeholders?
- Is this an event that impacts the project?
By asking yourself these questions, you can make sure everything that needs approval gets approval without bogging down your team with unnecessary meetings.
Milestone Management and Project Control
Milestone management is a zoomed-in version of PPM.
At certain milestones, the management team can evaluate whether a project’s progress is on time, within budget and to the client’s specs. Flexible teams will use these mile markers to make changes to their plans and strategies so they can improve those outcomes.
“Not every milestone has to be the ‘big’ launch of a new product to be included on the project schedule,” Ginny Edwards writes at Bright Hub Project Management. “In fact, the more mundane the milestone is, the more useful it may be to the project manager in gauging whether the project is on track or whether adjustments need be made to the schedule.”
These smaller indicators can signal when something is wrong before a major deliverable misses a deadline or a particular team needs additional resources. They can also prepare other teams or team members to start work on their pieces of the project.
Making Preparations to Minimize Milestone Lag
The Sifter explains the concept of milestone lag as the period of time between a completed milestone and when a team begins working toward the next one. It’s the project manager’s job to make sure the next task is ready to begin the second a major milestone is reached. A relay race is a useful metaphor here: When one team hands off the baton, is the next team ready to start running?
By planning what each team needs before the project reaches a specific milestone, you can cut down on milestone lag and let each team start working. This might include clearing a budget for approval, hiring additional contractors to add their skillsets or ordering materials that take weeks to arrive.
Mapping Out Milestones
Milestones need to be informative so they can accurately measure a project’s progress. Once you understand what you need your milestones to communicate to you, you will know how to space them out along a project’s timeline.
The team at Cleverism offers four criteria that your project milestones need to communicate if they’re going to be effective:
- What needs to be completed — what tasks need to have been completed by this point
- What was completed — what tasks actually were completed, and what tasks missed the mark
- When it will be completed — the planned dates to hit future milestones
- When it was completed — the actual dates milestones were hit
This forward-backward balance helps project managers determine the likelihood of success, but also helps them understand how to manage teams. If one team completes its part two weeks late, how should management adjust the schedule? Can one team in the future finish its task two weeks early, or should time be shaved from everyone?
This means milestone control is a major part of the project manager job description, as this gives PMs visibility into the multiple moving parts of a project. Rarely is a project a flat timeline, but rather a 3D model with some teams entering as others leave.
Milestones vs. Deadlines
Broadly speaking, there are two ways to measure progress: By milestones reached or by deadlines met.
Ryan Sievers explains that smart project managers use milestones to mark success because this frames progress in terms of accomplishments and a team’s ability to make decisions, whereas deadlines expose the project map to too many unknown variables. Milestone-driven project planning is so useful, Sievers says, because it “takes into account the exploratory nature of the start of many analytical projects.
“Milestone planning allows for the ‘visible horizon’ effect of project planning; where the details at the offing are more difficult to discern. In other words, many important events in the progression of a project are known at the outset of project and can more effectively guide project planning than assembling a detailed task-level plan that is time-bound at the outset.”
Deadlines Are at the Mercy of Procrastinators
The problem with scheduling a project based on time is that your team members might take the whole length allotted to complete the task. If you assign a task that takes eight hours and then give them a week to complete it, the team might not have the same hustle as if they only had a few days.
By giving teams more time to meet their deadlines — and setting vague or limited milestones for them to hit — you’re increasing the chances that teams will procrastinate or that the project will simply take longer.
Time-based project measurement can also get confusing when you try to visualize your projects. The team at Project-Management.com points out that length of time doesn’t necessarily correlate to the amount of work required. What seems like a large and important task could actually be relatively low-effort compared to a high-stress short task.
For example, if one team is ordering parts from various vendors, the shipping time could add weeks to a project. Waiting for a shipment to arrive isn’t typically a high-stress activity, but the team needs to complete it before the project can move forward.
Reconciling Milestones With Your Deadlines
Of course, deadlines are important because there is always a time element to any project.
So, when you create your milestones, Ben Aston at The Digital Project Manager recommends making them zero-day activities with a predecessor and successor. This process, known as creating adaptable milestones, will ensure your milestones are “logic driven, not restricted to a particular date in the schedule,” he writes.
Using Milestones to Define Success
Milestones ultimately tell the story of a project and help companies determine how successful its processes were in executing a project.
As you set your milestones, specifically state how you plan to determine whether the project was a success at each point. While some companies consider a project a success if the finished product is delivered to the client on time and as the client wants, that only paints an external picture of what happened.
Adrian Theoharous writes that tracking milestones can help teams assess exactly how well the project was executed. For example, tracking milestones helps you answer the following questions:
- During creation, how many employees were overworked in order to pick up the slack of others?
- How much of your budget did your team have to spend to hit your goals? More than 100 percent?
- How much work was required post-delivery? While you technically delivered something that was useable on time, how many hours did you spend afterward fixing mistakes or troubleshooting problems?
The team at Erpal explains that “done” does not equal “completed,” and you need to record bugs and breaks in your project plan. This also needs to be included in your post-mortem, as you might find yourself losing time and resources cleaning up a mess that you could have prevented by setting realistic milestones.
Milestones Can Improve Communication and Morale
While milestones are key for keeping a project on track, they can also reduce friction within employees, vendors and clients.
Milestones as Progress Updates
Elizabeth Harrin at the Balance has found milestones to be a great way to communicate project updates within the rest of the team and even the client. While smaller teams have daily standups or weekly meetings to review progress, these milestones represent the big picture. This also helps future teams with their planning to take over the project, as certain milestones will signify when they need to start preparing to begin their part of the project.
Milestones as Binding Agents
Milestones help both sides hold up their ends of the contract. The team at Mavenlink advises teams to sign off on the resources they need and the expected time to reach each milestone, while the client needs to approve that schedule. In this way, the project roadmap serves as an additional contract between both parties.
By creating milestone agreements, the project manager isn’t stuck in the middle trying to please the client while giving employees the resources they need. This is a delicate tightrope for them to walk. Nicole Jones at Kintone writes that good intentions and positive morale within a team can sour quickly when there’s an unexpected bottleneck during a project.
Flexible Milestones as Pressure Valves
When teams start scrambling to finish with limited time and resources, fingers start to point about whose fault the failure was. In this case, the role of the project manager is to objectively find solutions for improvement, not use the mile markers to start a witch hunt.
This is why it’s important for milestones to have flexibility over deadlines and deliverables. They allow teams to take a step back from the work and evaluate where they are and what needs to be adjusted.
“The most significant difference I see between the successful and the unsuccessful [project managers] is that the successful ones understood that people do the work,” writes Guy Harris, the Recovering Engineer.
In his eyes, the best project manager he ever worked with knew how to balance technical requirements with employee needs. He listened and added their input to the project plans, which in turn incentivized his team members — they wanted to meet their goals rather than feeling as though they had to meet them.
By putting people first, he was able to create realistic milestones and also had the trust of his team when he needed to push them to achieve their goals.
If you find that you’re regularly missing deadlines or hitting them in a harrowed fashion, then you could be setting the wrong milestones. By adding these extra checkpoints, you can increase clarity and flexibility within your projects to provide more realistic expectations for all parties involved.