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Using Milestones to Track Project Progress and Accomplishments

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First and foremost, project milestones are scheduling and status devices, used to measure progress as a project proceeds through its planned lifecycle. Milestones make management easier, providing the means to define project priorities, monitor progress and tell a more meaningful "status story".

Milestones can either be defined by specific tasks, events and decisions, or a cumulative point in time reached as a result of specific tasks, events and/or decisions. Most commonly, project milestones are characterized by one or more of the following:

  • Highly significant tasks, events or decisions.
  • A significant checkpoint or phase in the project lifecycle.
  • A specified "percent complete".
  • Completion of one or more deliverables.
  • Specified usage of resources or the budget.
  • Any significant circumstance unique to a given project.

Getting Started: Defining Milestones

The key to milestone use and identification is meaning and significance. By definition, every task and result cannot be a milestone. To warrant that designation, tasks and results must be of such significance that they tell the "status story" in and of themselves, even without any details relating to the specific, underlying work elements. For example - if you are developing a new software product, daily coding tasks will not be milestones, but having sufficient code for usability testing would be. Project milestones are used to manage the project work effort, monitor results, and report meaningful status to project stakeholders.

Using Milestones for Project Execution and Oversight

Once milestones have been identified and defined, and actual project work begins, related oversight obligations kick in. As project work is executed, identified milestones will either be met (in whole or part), missed in entirety, or will be modified as needed to suit changing project needs and circumstances.

Milestone Q and A:

  • Question: How important is this task, decision or event to the execution of the overall project?
    Answer: Highly Important = Milestone
  • Question: What is the likely impact if this task, decision or event is not met on time or as needed?
    Answer: Serious Impact = Milestone
  • Question: Can this task, decision or event be used as an indicator of project success?
    Answer: Yes = Milestone

The key to milestone management is to be informed and prepared, so you can act swiftly if and when problems occur. If you know that one or more milestones will not be met, the goal is to minimize negative impact while adhering to all previously approved fast track priorities. Responding to missed (or about to be missed) milestones will best be determined based on circumstances, capabilities and fast track priorities. No matter the response, communication is the key. Stakeholders must be kept fully informed to minimize negative perceptions, establish realistic expectations, and obtain important feedback to solve problems and/or re-negotiate previously established priorities.

Using Milestones to Tell Your "Status" Story

Project milestones are more than scheduling devices (which would be important enough), they are also communication and credibility devices, to set expectations and share status information. The following guidelines show you how to use milestones to create a project "progress narrative":

  • What do your designated milestones say about your project - i.e. what is important and why?
  • Which milestones have been met?
  • What do these "met" milestones say about project health and management quality?
  • Which milestones have been missed?
  • What do these missed milestones say about project health and management quality?
  • Which milestones are about to be missed?
  • What do these "about to be missed" milestones say about project health and management quality?
  • What actions will be taken to manage "missed" and "about to be missed" milestones?
  • What impact will these actions have on the project and probability for fast tracked success?
  • Which milestones are still pending?
  • Considering milestone status, can the project still be completed on time and as planned?

Making Milestones a "Tool" to Manage By....

Project milestones are one of the most useful (and used) variables to establish management benchmarks and quantify progress "to date" once projects are underway. Milestones set the stage to measure progress, and as such, they must be defined at the start, before costly work begins. Milestones provide direction and guidance, ensuring that projects proceed in a orderly fashion. When it comes to identifying project milestones, the best advice is to keep it simple - you'll know a milestone when you see one.  But there are rules of thumb.  In most cases, the dividing line distinguishing "milestone" from "non-milestone" is significance, impact and value as a predictive indicator. 

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