Milestones in Project Management: What You Need to Know to Stay On Task

When it comes to managing your projects you want to make sure that you’re doing everything right. You want to know that you’re going to have everything you need to achieve your goals and that your entire team is going to be prepared for what needs to be done. But how do you make sure of that? You might already have your tasks created for better project management. Or maybe you still need to get those set up. And you definitely don’t have milestones, right?

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What is a Milestone?

A milestone is a specific period in your project where you sit back and take stock of where you are and what you’ve accomplished. It allows you to see how far you’ve come and how far you still need to go in order for you to meet the ultimate goal of your project. That’s why it’s so important for you to set up these milestones and to carefully monitor them. In fact, you should have several milestones scattered throughout your project so you can tell if you’re on track to meet the deadline your client has set.
Generally, you’re going to want more milestones for projects that are larger. If you have a small project that will take you a week or less to complete you might have one milestone or maybe two. Or you might not have any. But if you have a project that will take you several months to complete you absolutely need to have milestones. You need to have a way of making sure that you’re going to hit the deadline. And finding out you’re off track early is going to be one of the best ways to make sure you can jump in where you need to be.

Why You Need Milestones

The most important thing is that your clients expect you to hit your deadline. They expect that you’re going to complete the assignment within the period of time you said you would. Milestones make sure that you’re on the right track to do exactly that. By having milestones you can make sure that you know if you’ve completed a quarter of the project by the time one-quarter of your time is done. You can know if you’ve completed half of the project by the time half of your time is up. And so on.
You want to be able to look at a specific metric to know what you’re doing and to know that it’s right. If you reach the deadline for a milestone and realize you haven’t achieved everything you should have you know that you need to step up a little in order to get on track by the next milestone. Then, when the next milestone rolls around you can do the same thing. You can see if you’re on track, behind schedule, or ahead of schedule. That way, you know what you need to achieve by the time you reach the next milestone and the next until you get to your ultimate deadline.
If you didn’t have milestones you would only have a start date and a deadline. And that means you wouldn’t know as you were working through your project whether you were going to finish on time. At least, you wouldn’t know how you were doing until the deadline was right around the corner and you suddenly realized that you had a ton of additional work to do. In that case, you would find yourself scrambling to try and get the project completed by the deadline and you might not be able to make it or you might not do the quality of work you know you could have done.
With milestones, you don’t have to feel so overwhelmed all at the end. You can reach the milestone and do a quick and thorough inventory of where you are and where you need to be. Then, you can make a plan for what you’re going to do going forward. If you’re already on track or ahead of schedule you can continue doing what you’re doing. If you’re falling behind, however, you’ll know that you need to pick up the pace and you can spread the tasks you need out over the rest of the time.
Your entire team is going to know how the project is going when you have set milestones as well. How often do you have someone on the team come up to you and ask if things are on schedule? Or ask if there’s something else they need to do? Your team wants to know that they’re doing everything right and that their part (at least) is going to be done on time. With milestones, you can make that easier.
The milestones will let everyone with access to the project know where you’re going to take that inventory. They could also lay out exactly what needs to be done by that point. That way, everyone who has been working on the project up to that point knows their deadline for those specific tasks. Not only that but they will know how to pace themselves from the time they get a task until the milestone deadline approaches. This should help them get things done more quickly and more efficiently.

Tasks vs. Milestones

In general, a milestone is made up of tasks that need to be completed. So, if you have already created your project and you’ve already laid out all of your tasks it’s time to take a closer look to decide where you can add in milestones. A milestone isn’t something that you have to do. It’s not like ‘writing a report’ or ‘filing the paperwork.’ Instead, your milestone would let you know that you’ve already achieved those set tasks and you’re going to complete the full project within the deadline that you and the client have agreed to. But they’re actually entirely up to you.
A task is a specific thing that needs to be done within the project but they’re generally small items. These are individual steps along the way. But the milestone is the landing that you reach after each floor. That’s where you take a look back and make sure that you’ve covered every one of those steps. You’ll make sure you didn’t skip any and you’ll make sure you’re ready to move on to the next floor. Without milestones, you’re not going to know if you’ve gotten as far as you need to, but the milestone doesn’t actually mean that you’re one step closer. The milestone is simply a point where you take that notice.
Now, there is an exception to this with milestones. In some instances, your client will set milestones. They might give you a set time frame to complete some of the tasks and give them a report. They might ask for updates periodically or ask you to submit different parts of the project at different times. In these instances, a milestone will double as a task. You’ll need to get all of the information together for the client and make sure that it’s turned over to them at the appointed time.
If you need to get approval for a specific task before you can move on that’s also a good time to have a milestone. Since you already need to get approval to move on you’re going to need to have that major task (or series of tasks) completed getting the approval. This is a natural milestone that may happen when you’re talking about any major project. You might have this type of milestone with the client or with a boss or even with shareholders. Who you have to report to or get approval from will vary based on the project, but if you need someone to give authorization you’ve got a milestone.

Create a Cohesive Plan

You’re going to need to create a cohesive strategy and a plan for your project as a whole. That’s the only way you’re going to be able to create the milestones that your project actually needs. So, make sure that you know the basics of the project. Before you accept a project you should already know the start date and the deadline. You should also know the expected outcome of the project and what kind of tasks need to be completed.
If you’ve had to bid for a project you’re going to have even more information because all of the tasks and even the people responsible for those tasks should be laid out for you in the agreement or contract. If they’re not this is the time when you need to look at the end deliverable and create a detailed outline of each task that needs to be accomplished and just who is going to be responsible for it. You’ll want to work with each of those team members to make sure they can take responsibility for those tasks and dedicate themselves to the project.
You’ll want to figure out any key dates and times throughout the project as well. Do you have a shareholder meeting in the middle of the project? Will they need to be updated? Does the client want to meet at set intervals to discuss things? These times and dates need to be added to your project timeline. These are your milestones. And if you add them in immediately you’re going to be much better off than if you’re trying to add them in after you’ve already outlined everything else about your project and tried to come up with your other deadlines.
What will the client/boss/shareholders need at that time? What information will they need to know? Which tasks need to have been completed? This will help you schedule everything that needs to be done within the project so your entire team is on the right track. These periods of time where you have milestones will naturally break up the work that needs to be done into what needs to be completed before, during, and after each of those periods. It helps you get prepared and stay on top of everything.

Do You Have Too Many or Too Few Milestones?

Having too few milestones could be a problem because if you don’t check in periodically you could end up far behind your schedule. If that happens you’re going to find yourself struggling to catch back up. And the longer you go without realizing your off schedule the harder it’s going to be for you to catch up in time. You could find yourself missing deadlines or having to call up your client to ask for an extension. And that’s not going to look good for your company.
On the other hand, having too many milestones can be overwhelming. If you’re concentrating too much on achieving your milestones and not so much on actually completing the tasks you’re going to get distracted. What you need are a few milestones at important stages of the process. Those are going the help you achieve what you need. Too many milestones dilute everything and make it harder for your team to stay on task the way they should.

In the End

Overall, there are a number of ways that milestones are going to make a huge difference for your project. If you haven’t already set them they’re something you absolutely need to start thinking about. If you have already set them to make sure that you’re scheduling in plenty of time to review them. Are your milestones where they need to be in the project process? Should you have more or fewer milestones within the project? Are you on track to hit the milestone that you’ve set? All of these things are important and they’re going to help you figure out whether your clients will be happy with the outcome … or not.

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