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Project milestones indicate the timing of the major decisions you and your team members need to make throughout the project life cycle.

And if you’re a digital project manager, the first thing to know is that planning and tracking project milestones is not for you; it’s for the team.

What Is A Project Milestone?

Project milestones divide a project into a set of smaller, manageable goals. They represent the inflection points or checkpoints in a project and can usually be tracked in project management software.

Here's one way to think about it: You can’t climb Mount Everest and come back down in a day. You need a base camp, and then a series of smaller camps that serve as way-stations or subsidiary goals you achieve as you march toward the summit.

Milestones are like these camps. They lead you, section by section, to the top of the mountain.

Since milestones are the subsidiary goals or important events you want to achieve during a project, each has a date. A project goal without an end date is not a goal. It’s a wish.

However, milestones should not be inflexible. The reason projects have milestones is to make teams execute more effectively and to manage the expectations of senior leaders.

Milestones are not meant to occur at regularly scheduled, specific points in the project management timeline. For example, they’re not meant to occur on a monthly cadence. Nor do they need to be attached to a presentation to senior managers that require the team to continue to justify the project.

Milestones vs. Deliverables: What's the Difference?

While project milestones mark phases, stages, or major decision making points in a project, deliverables are the tangible items that are created during each phase or stage.

Due dates of deliverables often coincide with the timing of milestones. For example, a website launch is the culmination of the work completed during the development and testing phases of the project.

Depending on how you've broken down the work in your project, you might end up with many smaller deliverables that make up bigger ones (like design approval, in the aforementioned website launch). These smaller deliverables might not necessarily coincide with a specific project milestone.

Considerations For Planning & Setting Milestones

The key to setting the right milestones is experience in project planning and tracking.

For project success, first define the project‘s goals. Understand the project‘s business objectives and how they fit with the overall company strategy. Set the project scope. Create a rough estimate of its length and size.

Then consider the two most important factors in planning and setting milestones: risk reduction and dependencies.

1. Milestone Planning To Reduce Risk

Digital product development is the reduction of risk over time. When you plan your project timeline and milestones first ask: What are the riskiest decisions you will need to make to execute this project?

  • Is the risk in the market?
  • Is the risk in the technology, ex. because it’s either new to your company or new to the world?
  • Is the risk in the relationships involved, for example in the management of development partners?
  • Is the risk in the fact that the project has such complex dependencies that the critical path is long and torturous?

There can be other risks as well, including operational or support risks. Define the risks as much as possible and use risk reduction over time as the operating principle to guide you in building a project timeline and planning the key project management milestones.

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Milestone Example: Game Developer Creates B2B App

Suppose your company is a game developer and your marketing team has discovered a new opportunity to use your gaming platform to create a new app that corporate HR departments can use to test new applicants.

The technology is similar to what you’ve designed before, but this new product means entry into a brand new market. It’s a B2B app and not a consumer product. And the new app’s purpose is not entertainment; it’s in the business apps and services space.

The technology risk is low, but the market risk is high.

What you need is access to customers for your HR app and an iterative approach where you can roll-out prototypes to potential customers.

Think through the steps required to develop these prototypes and get them in the hands of customers. Where will you find the best candidates for testing? Who do you need to be involved on your side? When in the project timeline should this happen?

Remember, the purpose of this exercise is to reduce the market risk, the earlier the better. When you think you will have reduced risk to acceptable levels, that’s where to place a milestone task, at this crucial inflection point in the project‘s progress.

2. Milestone Planning To Manage Dependencies

In addition to risk reduction, also consider the key dependencies. You may use the Critical Path Method to define each critical task and how they—and the people who will do them—will interact over time.

The goal is to find the longest path to the next milestone and then try to shorten it. Note the inflection points where key individuals or groups come together to accomplish a goal that propels your project forward. That’s where to place a milestone.

In our HR app example, think about who needs to be on the team to test (iteratively) the new app’s product-market fit. Consider when they need to be there, and what their other constraints are. Think about the key deliverables that these groups will need to create along the way.

Map these key dependencies. When they come together to satisfy the need to reduce market risk, accomplishing a key goal along your path to the summit, that’s where you want your milestone.

A milestone planning pitfall to avoid:

Don’t start with a project completion date that comes from senior management, and then reason backward from the due date of the end of the project to create the timeline and key milestones. Planning your timeline and milestones should not be top-down, but bottom-up.

Agree on a timeframe and launch date by consensus between the team and senior management. The people who are doing the work should make the plan.

How To Track Project Milestones

After you’ve mapped the critical path and planned your project milestones, you need to track them. They should be visible to all stakeholders, including senior management. Management needs some confirmation that the project is moving forward as planned, especially if the team requires minor course corrections along the way.

Teams should publish their list of project milestones which includes the goals, decisions, or accomplishments associated with each of them. You could input this information into your Gantt chart, milestone chart, project plan, project charter, or project schedule.

It can be as simple as a table with three columns that includes the date; the milestone name; and the deliverables, goals or accomplishments associated with each. Send this table to the cloud. Do not email it, but keep it as a shared, public document.

Management by Exception

The team should only report to senior management where there are exceptions, ie. when it perceives that it is not going to hit a milestone by the scheduled date, or when it is not going to achieve the deliverables or goals for a certain project phase.

This management by exception approach means that 1) your milestones are stated clearly and visible to each stakeholder; 2) there are no status meetings (if you’re working to plan, why waste time making and delivering a slide presentation to that effect?); and 3) only report to senior management when the plan begins to go off course.

3 Practical Examples of How to Use Milestones

We advise that a typical digital development project should have three major milestones, with perhaps between four and six minor milestones leading up to each major milestone. The three major milestones define the following:

1. Concept Fit

The team demonstrates that time-to-revenue is foreseeable and that the revenue potential is sufficiently large. The team shows that the proposed project fits with the overall company strategy. This milestone is achieved when the project has a defined and fully-funded team.

2. Product/Market Fit

By this milestone, the dev team has shown that the product under development is the best solution for the market. They have identified use cases, and have tested prototypes with users to confirm fit with the intended market.

The team has calculated accurately the project costs and defined the product’s profit potential. The team has achieved this milestone when there is a workable prototype, at least for internal purposes.

3. Development and Market Launch

To achieve this milestone, the team needs to develop an MVP that is prepared to encounter actual users, that justifies the time and resources invested, and that it’s worth the potential risk to the company’s reputation.

The team achieves this milestone when it creates a series of iterations of its product prototype in collaboration with customers. The team will also have achieved this project milestone when it assesses the digital product’s UI, quality, feature set, and support capability.

development and market launch infographic
An example minimum viable process.

A three step product development process. Think of each project phase as a product release. The development team ties exit criteria to a sprint. This Minimum Viable Process is a hybrid approach that combines the best elements of phases and gates processes with agile methodologies.

Examples of Common Project Milestone Inflection Points

The first of the major milestones above answers the question “Why this product?” The second answers the question “What is the product and how will we achieve our goals?” The third milestone answers the question “When will we be ready to release it to the world?”

Within each of these milestones, arrange four to six minor milestones that are inflection points that will lead you to each of the three major milestones. For example, leading up to the each of the three major milestones we’ve defined above, create minor milestones for each of these activities:

Concept Fit

  • Project has an experienced, entrepreneurial leader
  • Product idea fits with the corporate vision
  • The technology is feasible
  • Project has the right staff and resources
  • Product has sufficient commercial potential

Product Market Fit

  • The technology has been fully vetted
  • Use cases have been defined
  • The project has an estimated cost of development
  • The commercial potential has been quantified and confirmed
  • User feedback has been collected and understood

Development and Market Launch

  • Minimum Viable Product developed
  • Business plan written and confirmed
  • Market research complete
  • Customer support infrastructure built
  • Salesforce trained

Other examples of minor milestones for digital projects:

  • Product definition complete
  • Proof of technology feasibility
  • Prototype complete
  • UI accepted
  • Management signed-off on UI
  • Testing
  • User feedback (iterative)
  • Readiness to scale (ex. localization)

Benefits Of Using Project Milestones

Here are a few of the major benefits of using project milestones.

  1. Project managers can use them to track progress. For example, if you've used up 50% of your budget, but you've only hit, say, 1 out of 3 milestones, you might be tracking behind schedule.
  2. They help set up expectations with clients and internal stakeholders about workflows, how often they can expect communication, and what work will be completed when.
  3. Project managers can use them for status reporting purposes (ex. was the milestone achieved or not).
  4. They can be aligned with invoicing and payment schedules, so clients know in advance when they will be invoiced and any freelancers know when they will be paid.

Key Takeaways For Project Milestones

Here’s a summary of the main takeaways from this article:

1. The purpose of planning a timeline and a set of milestones is for the team to do their jobs better. 

Management needs to be able to rely on the team, and the team needs accountability, but the milestones aren’t for project managers or senior managers.

2. Typical milestones are signposts to ensure that the team reaches the right goals at the right time. 

Also, milestones are not a good substitute for good project management. They are the result of managing projects with foresight, with an eye on reducing risks and managing key dependencies so the project team can work smoothly without bottlenecks.

3. For digital product development, have three major milestones that correlate with major business goals.

Use milestones to define the concept, confirm the fit between the product and the market, and then develop and launch. Have about four to six minor milestones leading up to each of these three.

4. Above all, have only as many milestones as you need to propel the project forward.

Many companies have too much process. Milestones involve major events and important dates, so don’t get bogged down with trying to keep track of too many smaller milestones. You need just enough process to achieve your goals. Think Goldilocks: not too much, not too little.

Want to master the finer points of creating project milestones? Check out expert-created training from DPM School.

John Carter
By John Carter

John Carter is Founder of TCGen Inc. and a widely respected expert on product development. He is a co-inventor of Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones and designer of Apple’s New Product Process. He has consulted for Abbott, Amazon, Apple, Cisco, HP, IBM, Mozilla, Roche, and 3M. He is the author of Innovate Products Faster, featuring more than 40 tools for accelerating product development speed and innovation.