Using Milestones to Track Project Progress and Accomplishments

What would project planning be like if every task, decision and event were given the same weight and significance?  It would all just be “noise”, without a meaningful way to monitor progress or plan next steps.   That’s the point of the project milestone – to quiet the “noise” and provide actionable goalposts to manage by.  Read on for more.

What are Project Milestones?

There isn't one answer to this question.  From a practical perspective, and depending on project circumstances, milestones can be any of the following:

  • The completion of any highly significant task, event, occurence or decision.
  • Reaching a significant checkpoint or phase in the project lifecycle.
  • Achieving a specific "percentage complete" for any given amount of work.
  • The production of one or more planned project or process deliverables.
  • The usage of a specific amount of funding, the passage of a specific amount of time, or the utilization of a specific number of resource hours.
  • And, above all, any significant circumstance or event unique to a given project.

But milestones are more than events and circumstances. From a more strategic perspective, milestones also serve as "management metrics", providing the means to define project priorities, monitor progress and tell a more meaningful "status story".  As metrics, milestones are first identified and defined during the “project definition phase”, when the overall project “concept” is broken into specific, actionable terms.  These milestone metrics are managed through a series of three (3) sequential stages:

Stage 1: Defining Project 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.

Here's the questions you need to ask and answer:

  1. Question: How important is this task, decision or event to the execution of the overall project?
    If your answer is "highly important", that's a milestone.
  2. Question: What is the likely impact if this task, decision or event is not met on time or as needed?
    If your your answer is "serious impact", that's a milestone.
  3. Question: Can this task, decision or event be used as an indicator of project success?
    If your answer is "yes, it's an indicator", that's a milestone.

Note:  As a practical matter, milestone “definition” is not limited to the definition phase.  In fact, milestone definition occurs throughout the project management lifecycle.  Change is a fact of life in every project, and as project terms and circumstances change (while the project unfolds), milestones must change as well.  Some milestones may be eliminated, some may be modified and new ones may appear.  The extent to which "milestone definition" will be required (beyond initial stages) will depend upon the nature of the project and the extent to which scope changes are allowed.

Stage 2: Using Milestones to Oversee Progress

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.

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.  How does it work?

  1. Triggering Event:  An identified milestone is pending.
  2. The milestone must be examined to determine likely status. (i.e. "will be" or "will not be" met).
  3. If the milestone will be met, the project can proceed as planned.
  4. If the milestone will not be met, a “milestone analysis” must be initiated to determine several key factors:  Why is the milestone not being met?   What is the impact on the project as it stands today?  What actions can be taken in response?

Stage 3: Telling the "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.   As milestones are reviewed for status reporting purposes, the following questions can be addressed:

  • 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?

Here's a few closing "milestone" tips:

Tip #1: Project milestones are one of the most useful (and used) variables to establish management benchmarks and quantify progress "to date" once projects are underway. To maximize the potential value, every SOW and/or project charter must incorporate “milestone definitions”, stated in sufficient terms to set expectations and allow for informed consent.

Tip #2: At the heart of the matter, milestones set the stage to measure progress, and as such, they must be defined at the start, before costly work begins.  Without the means to measure progress, your project can quickly get out of control and you may miss important signals regarding plan viability (or lack thereof).

Tip #3: 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, all influenced by project specifics.  And, when it comes to milestones, experience may very well be the best teacher.  That’s why the “milestone process” should always be evaluated as part of every post-project review – so you can learn from experience and improve related predictive capabilities.

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