Project management is quite a daunting task, because we are talking about overseeing an entire project from start to finish. In fact, it starts even earlier, during the milestones planning stage of the project and long before its actual implementation and execution. Part of what makes it actually doable is the existence of various tools that can facilitate the whole process of managing a project. You know your project objectives, you are fully aware of the expectations, and you even have complete control of the resources that will be used over the course of the project. You have the timeline mapped out. Now it is time to mark the timeline with milestones.

Everything You Need To Know About Milestones Planning

© | Sira Anamwong

In this article, you will get to learn about 1) an introduction to milestones planning and 2) guidelines to milestones planning.


When we speak of tools used in project management, one of the first things that will come to mind, particularly with respect to timing and scheduling, is milestones planning. Milestones mark specific key points or anchors along the timeline of a project.

You have probably heard the word used often to describe key events in one’s life. It could be a young lady’s 18th birthday, or when she graduates from college. Another milestone is when she gets married, followed by when she gives birth to her child.

In a business context, let us take the example of a budding entrepreneur. His milestones would most likely include the time when he started his first business. When he landed his first major deal. When he made his first million in sales. When he took his business public. These are all milestones.

But, of course, we are talking about milestones planning in terms of project management.

The specific points are indicative of moments on the project timeline where major progress has been made towards the accomplishment of the project objective or goal. They are the small steps that are taken to ultimately lead you to the end goal, which may be the development of a product or a service. These milestones are marked on the project timeline, and are deemed realized when they have been reached with success.

More often than not, these milestones have nothing to do with how long the project will last. In other words, setting milestones does not shorten or extend the life of a project. This is why milestones are also defined as “zero-duration” tasks, because they are achievements or commitments. They are a point in time, and not a length of time.

Importance of Milestones Planning

The area of project planning that benefits the most from the use of milestones planning is project scheduling. Milestones are in fact, referred to as the “building blocks” or “stepping stones” of a project schedule.

Project scheduling basically involves creating a project tool, which indicates clearly the work that must be performed, the personnel that will perform the work, the resources that are required in the work performance, and the time frame that must be followed in the completion of the work. Project scheduling has one objective: to ensure that all the work involved will be performed so that the project will be completed within the time allotted, and even before the deadline.

There are several methodologies currently being used in project scheduling, and two of the most popular ones are the Critical Path Method (CPM) and the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT). Milestones are considered to be very helpful even when these methodologies are employed.

We will be better able to understand why we should do milestones planning if we look into the importance of the milestones themselves.

  • Milestones are primarily used in monitoring the progress of a project. They serve as excellent indicators on whether the project is going on schedule or not. Overall, it provides managers a way or an opportunity to see if the project is going as planned or if drastic action must be taken for adjustment purposes.
  • Aside from the time factor, milestones are also useful in checking whether or not the project is still within budget as it goes along.
  • Milestones aid in the identification of critical segments, or project segments or activities that need more attention or time than others. This will help managers assign the proper amount of time and resources where and when they are most needed.
  • Milestones provide the forward momentum that will push or propel a project forward until it reaches its completion. They offer a degree of motivation to get the different activities in the project done, as the workers will feel the urge to complete the milestones, towards the completion of the whole project.

Milestones planning also helps in managing the expectations of stakeholders and everyone involved in the project. All these point to one major important role that milestones planning plays in project management: MILESTONE CONTROL, one of the key control activities of project management.

Milestone control addresses four areas:

  1. What to complete: The project is divided into smaller manageable segments, which are subsequently monitored until completion to evaluate whether they are in accordance with the plan and the schedule.
  2. What was completed: All the accomplishments and milestones that mark the progress of the project, are recorded and subsequently compared to the project schedule that was earlier prepared.
  3. When was it completed: Comparing the actual completion date of a milestone to the scheduled one will indicate the effectiveness and efficiency of performance of the various activities of the project.
  4. When will it be completed: There is a need to check if there are variances in the project schedule with respect to the milestones and accomplishments. It is not enough that they see whether they met the milestones or not; they also have to find the reason why they were not able to do so, or why they were able to meet them well ahead of time. This will further aid in assessing whether the entire project will be finished on schedule.

There are, however, some minor arguments against milestones planning. It is effective, yes, but only to a certain extent. As pointed out by expert makers of project schedules, milestones show the progress only on the critical path. This means that the non-critical activities of the project are largely ignored.

This leads to project managers trying to perform some window-dressing of their own. What they do is to move resources from non-critical activities to the identified critical activities in order for the milestones to be met. On the surface, it would appear that the project is “healthy”, on schedule and on budget. It does not immediately reveal the fact that some non-critical activities have been sacrificed or even completely ignored.

Types of Milestones

The most common milestones are made on the following points in a project timeline:

  • Start date of the project
  • End date of the project
  • Dates for budget reviews or evaluations
  • Dates for the conduct of external reviews
  • Points where major input to the project is made

Simply put, milestones are often expressed in terms of dates. We can categorize these dates into three:

  • Key Dates. In the examples enumerated above, take note that they are mostly dates. The usual key dates used as milestones include the dates of launch parties, board meetings and product rollouts.
  • Key Deadlines. Projects always have to deal with deadlines. In fact, that is what they are all working towards: finishing the project and having the deliverables ready on or before the deadline.
  • External Dates. There are a lot of external factors that will also affect the way your project is executed, and they must be reflected as milestones if they are significant or relevant enough. Examples include the delivery of important materials that will be used in several activities of the project, or the schedule of external review or audit by an independent firm.

Most of us have been nurturing the idea that milestones are something “big” and “momentous”, thus discounting the smaller and more mundane points as inconsequential. This is a mistake that even many experienced project managers do.

There is no such a thing as “typical milestones”, or those that are not necessarily “big” or have a lot of impact, but are still integral to the overall conduct of a project. Some of the typical milestones that project managers come across are:

  • Approval of applications for patents of new products
  • Receipt of funding from external investors or lenders
  • Installation of major facilities, plants, or equipment
  • Initial rollout of product prototypes
  • Signing of major contracts affecting the conduct of the project
  • Recruitment and hiring of key personnel or staff

If we are to give them proper classifications, they would be:

  • Milestones on phase transitions. These are milestones in a project that focuses on the product development or product or service expansion. Usually, milestones under this classification include the conduct of marketing research, product design, product testing, and the delivery.
  • Milestone on completion of a deliverable. Once the non-tangible or tangible output of an activity has been completed and delivered, this is marked as a milestone.
  • Milestone on rates of completion. This is different from the completion of a deliverable, because the milestones are marked when stages of a process towards completion of the project have been completed. Normally, this is for long-running projects that are done in stages. Once a stage is completed, it is marked as an achieved milestone. The next milestone would be when the next stage is also completed, until such time that all stages – and the whole project – has been completed.
  • Milestone involving performance recognition. This milestone focuses more on the quality of the work performed, not necessarily on the pace it was performed or the amount of work completed within the time allotted. For example, if the workers were able to turn in a specific number of hours’ work, they will merit recognition. This can be deemed as a milestone.


When setting milestones for a project, there are several guidelines or steps that must be followed.

A. Development of a Work Breakdown Structure

There are several project management documents and forms that must be prepared even during the project planning stage, and the work breakdown structure is one of those. You will need this because it provides an overview of all the tasks or activities within the project.

A work breakdown structure is a tool that is created in order to break down the components or sections that are more manageable and easier to execute and track or monitor. It is especially useful in complex and large projects, because of the following benefits:

  • It aids project managers in organizing and planning project activities with accuracy.
  • It aids project managers in identifying the skills sets required for the activities in the project, and assigning the responsibilities to the qualified personnel.
  • It helps project managers in budgeting, scheduling and risk management.
  • It is useful in identifying the control points and milestones of the project along the project timeline.

The Work Breakdown Structure can be simple or complex in its representation, depending on what the project requires. The components are identified, along with their respective activities or elements, as well as their interconnections, if any. It could be represented in a simple outline or a diagram, or it may be through an animated presentation. The project deliverables, or the output of a project (or a segment thereof) that will ultimately be handed over to the end user, are also clearly identified in the work breakdown structure.

One of the more common ways to do this is through a Gantt Chart.

B. Spotting Milestones

Once you have an overall general idea of the work that the project entails, it is time to look for opportunities that you can use to set up milestones. The milestones must be in view of the accomplishment of the tasks or activities that were clearly identified in the work breakdown structure.

Keep in mind that milestones are not just achievements but also commitments. They must be met, and they must be met on time. But they are also excellent learning tools, informing project managers – even as early as the project planning stage and all throughout the project execution – of areas where adjustments must be made.

This is probably one of the more difficult parts of milestones planning: actually looking for them. Many project managers are apprehensive that they may not be able to identify a milestone even when it is staring them in the face. You can make use of the following parameters to make the job of spotting milestones easier.

  • Importance. A good rule of thumb is that, if the deliverables are important, they may be designated as milestones. Those who are involved in the project planning must use their professional judgment to identify the significant and relevant events that are expected to take place along the project timeline, and mark them as milestones.
  • Frequency. It does not automatically mean that, if an event occurs frequently, then it is so relevant or significant and merits being designated as a milestone. There is nothing wrong with paying attention to the more frequent points, but do not immediately assume that they are milestones. You have to first weigh them according to their importance, which is the first parameter discussed above.
  • Timing. We keep hearing this: in business, timing is everything. The same is true when looking for milestones. Milestones are spaced evenly, at intervals. If they are placed too closely together, they become routine and not distinct at all, so they lack the impact that milestones are known for. In contrast, if the milestones are too far apart, the forward momentum of the project will be affected. There is a danger of the members of the project team to lose motivation when they cannot see the next milestone up ahead. Usually, projects with a timeline of about 3 to 5 months space their milestones at least 2 to 3 weeks apart.
  • Accountability. There needs to be a proper matching of the objectives of the project and the resources assigned to the activities directly addressing those objectives (as well as the people accountable for these resources and activities). This is for easier evaluation, in case quick adjustments must be made.
  • Visibility. If the milestones are unclear or vague, then there is no way that the members of the project team will be able to easily identify them for the milestones that they are. They must be clearly identified and visibly indicated on the project timeline. This is also a mode of reinforcement for everyone involved.
  • Amount of risk involved. Milestones should have weight, and this comes with the degree of risk involved. As mentioned earlier, milestones are commitments and, as most commitments go, there is a possibility that they will not be met. If there is a certain degree of risk involved – no matter how small or large – the motivation to meet them will be greater, and so will be the ensuing reward.

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