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Why Should I Use Milestones in Project Management Software?

A milestone is a specific point in time within a project lifecycle used to measure the progress of a project toward its ultimate goal. In project management, milestones are used as signal posts for significant events, decision points, or deliverables such as:

  • The project’s start date
  • Project end date
  • Submission of a customer report
  • Need for an external review or approval
  • A phase or stage gate review

What’s the Difference Between a Milestone and a Task?

Tasks are the individual actions that people need to carry out to achieve project goals. Milestones are simply used to help break up the project and improve progress monitoring. A milestone is a reference point that marks major events, decision points, or deliverables that a project manager and other stakeholders need to pay attention to.

Unlike project tasks, milestones have no duration. In other words, they have one fixed date and no labor hours, as opposed to a start and end date and an assigned work effort. Here are some other ways that milestones differ from tasks within project management software:

  • Milestones are typically displayed with a different icon on the Gantt chart, such as a diamond or flag.
  • Dependent milestones aren’t automatically rescheduled if tasks in the chain are rescheduled. However, the dependency chain may be flagged or issue a warning if a task in the dependency chain is rescheduled to start or finish after the milestone.
  • Project management software should allow for an overview or summary view that enables you to see upcoming milestones as well as any scheduling conflicts that they may have.

You can convert a task to a milestone within your software, but this will remove any duration or labor assigned. It will also only work if the task is scheduled to start and end on the same day. Otherwise, you will have to modify the dates assigned. You can also convert a milestone into a task by changing the task type and adjusting the duration and labor effort.

Keep in mind that a milestone is a fixed date that doesn’t budge, no matter how work is progressing around it. It may help to think of a milestone as a boulder in a river: The boulder (milestone) stays put as the water (work) flows around it. In other words, even if the associated tasks are being completed early, the milestone doesn’t move up. Likewise, if the tasks are slipping behind schedule, the milestone won’t automatically move out to a later date.

Why Do Milestones Matter?

The use of project milestones is essentially a scheduling strategy. In smaller projects, you may only have two milestones: the project start and end dates. Milestones are also less common in Agile projects as the Agile Methodology focuses on short iterations and evolving schedules and plans. Within an Agile project, the only milestones may be at the end of each Sprint. Milestones are more common in traditional project management methodologies that follow a more structured approach to planning and scheduling.

Milestones help ensure that critical project deadlines are met. Often these deadlines are dictated to you by the customer or project sponsor. For example, if you were contracted to write an e-book for a client, that client would likely tell you when they want to see the first draft and when they expect to receive the final product. Both of these dates are milestones.

Milestones can also act as mile markers on long projects. For instance, let’s say you have a year-long project to complete a new product release. We can assume that the work effort is estimated to be fairly steady throughout the entire project. This means that at the 3-month mark, the project should be 25% complete, at the 6-month mark it should be 50% complete, and at the 9-month mark, it should be 75% complete.

A milestone may be created at each of these points to assess actual progress compared with expected progress. If you arrive at the 3-month mark to discover the project is only 15% complete, you now have an early warning sign that there may be a problem and the end date might be at risk.

Milestones are also useful for communicating project success. When you’re in the middle of a complex project, it can be difficult to determine who is really accomplishing what. You can become so focused on the minutiae of each task that you lose perspective.

But with milestones, you can easily move away from the task level and see the overall progress more clearly. Plus, regularly communicating the milestones you’ve met is a great way to gain trust and keep stakeholders updated on their investments even before the project is completed.

How to Select Milestones

When creating your own project management schedule, it can be challenging to determine what to set as milestones. Too few milestones may not provide you with enough project oversight, but too many milestones clutter up your reports and reduce their value.

In order to achieve the right balance, it’s not as simple as just listing every deliverable due date. Project milestones need to have a clear and consistent meaning, both throughout and across projects. For instance, if “submission of initial draft” is a milestone on one project, it should be a milestone on all similar projects. This creates consistency for reporting, which enables stakeholders to better understand the overall progress of all projects.

If you’re not sure what should and should not be a milestone, the following questions may help:

  • Is it an activity that requires time, or is it an end product?
  • Will it impact the final deadline?
  • Is it an important moment in the project?
  • Will it be a strong indicator of overall project progress?
  • Does it need to be reviewed and approved by stakeholders?
  • Is it an event that impacts the project?

Key deliverables owed to you by outside parties are also useful deadlines. For instance, imagine that you require a subcontractor to complete some sub-assembly before your team can begin production. In this scenario, the due date for the subcontractor should be a milestone. Another example is if you have a critical material delivery expected to arrive in six weeks. That arrival date may need to be a milestone in your schedule.

How to Use Milestones in Your Project Management Software

One of the best ways to organize your project effectively is to interconnect the tasks with the project goals. That makes tasks meaningful for your team and motivates people and things get done faster.

For example, if you’re launching a new software update, major milestones may include:

  • Finalize software design
  • Finalize software production
  • Complete software testing

You can then organize the associated tasks by the project milestones. This allows everyone to see which concrete steps need to be achieved to reach each goal, and it give team members a better understanding of the impact of their individual tasks.

Milestones can also be used to define check-in points throughout the project so that everyone is clear about what progress looks like, what the expectations are, and when they’ll be measured. By inputting these checkpoints into the schedule and managing to them, you enable the team to stay in sync towards overall project goals and outcomes.

Further reading
blog post

7 Mission Critical Things to Consider When Building Your Project Plan

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How to Write a Project Plan in 8 Easy Steps

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The In-Depth Guide to Using Wrike's Online Gantt Chart Maker

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Project Management Basics: Beginner's Guide to Gantt Charts