Project Milestones

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Some studies have come to the conclusion that there is a correlation between project planning and project success[1]. In addition, according to the Project Management institute almost 40% of projects failures is due because of poor planning[2]. Due to that fact it is very important that project managers use good planning methods because planning is one of their responsibilities[1]. Project milestones is a project management tool that project managers find useful to identify important events in the life of the project[3]. So, project milestones help project managers to track deadlines and critical dates, see potential bottlenecks and see how time and resources are allocated. By using project milestones, it can also give more visibility to stakeholders so they can see better how the project is going as well as the project teams will have a better overview of what they are responsible for[4]. The focus in this article will be on explaining what project milestones are, how they can be used and how SMART goals can be used to make the project milestones more effective. In addition to that the article will discuss how project milestones are applied as well as pinpointing advantages, disadvantages, and limitations of the tool.


A project milestone is an event on a schedule that marks significant progress in a project. It might be the completion of a work package, a delivery stage or perhaps a management stage. By breaking the plan using milestones, the project manager will be able to get an early indication of problems related to the schedule, as well as a clearer view of the activities that are crucial to the timeline of the plan[5]. Additionally, the milestones are useful because they have zero duration so they will not affect the schedule at all[6]. Project milestones are usually defined in the planning phase of a project and are updated as the project develops[4].

There is no right number of milestones or how much time there should be between them but if they are too many or too few, they lose their value. The project milestones should be fewer than the work packages or the deliverables but enough to measure if the plan is progressing as planned[5]. Some people might suggest setting milestones around once a month to the plan. That can be a good guideline, but it is important to take professional experience into account. Some months could have a lot of activity while others can focus more on execution which leaves little left to set a milestone on. For the purpose of reporting it is useful to have at least one milestone for each reporting cycle[7].

Having milestones part of your project gives an opportunity to celebrate when project milestones have been reached. It can be in the form of handshake, note or lunch to take an example. By doing that there will be a more positive relationship between the team and the project manager and more trust which leads to a more productive project[8].


When identifying and defining project milestones it is good to follow the SMART goals to make the milestones as effective as possible. By using the SMART goals, it will help the project managers to make them specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely. A little description on how each SMART goal can make the milestones more effective.

Specific: Every milestone should be specific or in other words everyone should be able to see it and know what must be done to reach it. It is important because otherwise the milestones are confusing and more likely to be undoable.

Measurable: To have an effective milestone it is important to be able to measure them. That can for instance be done by using to do lists. By using to do lists milestones can be broken down to tasks. The tasks can then be measurable because they are either completed or not. So, by looking at the to do list it is quite easy to see how far along the milestone is.

Attainable: It is very important that the milestone is not too big or to complex so it can be attainable. It is important because it is very discouraging to work hard to complete a milestone when you cannot see the finish line.

Relevant: This SMART goal might be clear, but it is important that the milestone is relevant to the project. That is because having to many factors outside the project plan may disturb and derail the effort.

Timely: To have an efficient milestone it is important that it can be tracked. Each of the project milestones should have a start time, due date and expected timeframe. Without it there is no purpose to finish anything because there is no time limit.

In addition to those five points it is good to have in mind to have the project milestones open.

Open: The project milestones should be open and presentable which means they should not have a lot of technical terms so the milestones can be easily explained to non-technical people like clients. With clear milestones there will be no misinterpretation or confusion[9].

Steps in application

Figure 1: Example of a Milestone plan (Own figure, inspired by [1])

The application of the project milestones can be defined in five steps. They are:

Step 1: Identifying and defining the project milestones

One of the first things when identifying project milestones is to separate them from tasks. That can be done by deciding which elements of the project will become the greatest accomplishments. To do that it is good to write down everything that has to be done. If the element could have a major impact on the final deadline or if the element is a pivotal point in helping the project move forward, then it is most likely a project milestone. As well if it is a stage in the project that the stakeholders will need to review it is a project milestone[10]. There are three questions that can be good to ask and answer when finding project milestones, they are:

Question 1: How crucial is this decision, task or event to the implementation of the entire project?

     -	If it is extremely important it is a project milestone.

Question 2: What could be the potential effect of this decision, task or event if it is not carried out in time or when it is necessary?

     -	If the answer is significant impact it is a project milestone.

Question 3: Could this decision, task or event be seen as a measurement of the project success?

     -	If the answer is yes, it is a project milestone[11].

When the project milestones have been identified it is good to name the project milestones. The name should give a direct description on the project milestone, but it is important to be careful to not imply that the milestone is a task. For instance, the milestone should not be named 'Get the agreement moved to Phase 2' but rather 'Phase 2 begins'. To show what must be done to get the agreement to move to phase 2 can be done by adding a task before the project milestone to cover it. Some project managers choose to number their project milestones but as the number of project milestones increases the more important it gets to name your milestones to make them even more clear[7].

After the project milestones have been identified a milestone plan can be made, see Figure 1. By looking at the milestone plan the order of the milestones can be seen [1].

Step 2: Monitor milestones

When the project milestones have been identified and defined it is helpful to monitor their deadlines. At this stage it is good to use a to do list like described in the introduction. By using the to do list there is a possibility to check each point when it is finished. A good rule is to check in with the team two weeks before the project milestone is due. By doing so the project manager can make sure that everyone knows their tasks to reach the project milestone. As the time moves closer to the deadline it is important to make sure that most of the tasks are completed[10].

If the unfortunate situation happens that one or more project milestones will not be met, then it is important to try to minimize negative impact. Communication is very important, stakeholders should be informed about missed milestones or about to be missed milestones to minimize negative perceptions, create reasonable expectations as well as receiving useful feedback to find solutions and/or to re-negotiate previously identified priorities. If the project milestone is not met it is important to analyze why is the project milestone not being met? What is the effect on the project right now? What measures can be taken in response to the milestone not being met[11]?

Step 3: Communication

Most projects need teams or external partners to complete the work, so it is important to have good communication, so everyone is aware of the project deadlines[10]. When a project needs external partners, it is important to know when they are needed so they can be contacted in time so they will be available. If that is not done and the person that is needed is not available, it can mean that the team will not be able to reach the next milestone on time[12]. Project milestones are also good because they let all the team members know what is expected for every milestone as well as to give them a clear overview of the project timeline. Like the first step stated, it is important to check in regularly to make sure that everything is on track. Everyone needs to work together to get the best results[10].

Step 4: Status report

Project milestones are not only scheduling devices they are also communication and credibility device. What they also do is they set out certain expectations as well as they share status information. While doing the status report it is good to ask these questions:

  • What do the project milestones say about the project?
  • Which project milestones have been met?
  • What do the finished project milestones say about the project health and quality management?
  • What do the missed project milestones say about the project health and quality management?
  • Which project milestones are on the verge to be missed?
  • What do the project milestones that are on the verge to be missed say about the project health and management quality?
  • What actions must be taken to handle the project milestones that are on the verge on being missed?
  • What actions must be taken to handle the project milestones that have already been missed?
  • Which project milestones are left?
  • Given the project milestones status will the project still be finished on time as planned?

By asking those question the project manager will have a better overview of the project, what is going well and what is not going that great. So, the project manager will have a better knowledge on how to get the project back on track or how to keep the project on track.

Step 5: Post project review

After each project it is important to evaluate the milestone process. It is important to learn form past projects to improve and to be able to provide more accurate predictions in the future[11].

How to present Project Milestones

It is very important for the project manager to be able to keep track of all the project milestones. There are a couple of methods that can be used, and it depends on the project manager and the team which method is best suited for them. Here are some examples:

Paper: Writing plans down on paper can be beneficial. For example for meetings that are in person, it would make it easier for everyone to see how the project is set up when it is written down. To make each milestone stand more out they can for instance be color coded.

Email: There are some project managers and teams that like to use email to keep track of the project. One of the benefits of using email is that anyone in the email chain can right away reply with some questions they might have or suggestions for the project. Furthermore, there is also the possibility to go back and review old inputs.

Online management system: There are many online management systems that help project managers and teams to keep track of their project milestones. There are both free and paid programs that can be chosen. By using online management system, it makes it easier for each team member to mark the milestone they were assigned to complete. Additionally, it makes it easier for the team members to know who is in charge of each task and they can see their teammates progress to make sure that they also meet their goals.

Many of the online management systems use some form of Gantt charts which are also known as Bar charts. For each project it would be advisable to have both Gantt charts that show the project schedule and one that shows Milestone chart[10]. The Gantt chart for the project schedule lists activities on the vertical axis and lists dates on the horizontal axis. The activity durations are then marked according to their start and finish dates with horizontal bars. The milestones are also marked in, to mark them in a diamond symbol is often used. This chart gives a good overview of the project. Milestone chart is also a Gantt chart, but it only identifies the milestones[6]. It is good to have a chart that only shows the milestones for the stakeholders they often do not want to see the whole schedule but just the main parts of the project [1].

Limitation and disadvantages to project milestones

There are some limitations and disadvantages for using project milestones that is good to be aware of.

  • When doing a status report, it is important to look at what went wrong and how the project is doing but it is important to not dwell on it for too long. It is in the nature of projects to have changes[8].
  • The milestone plan includes all the project milestones, but the project milestones only say half of the story. To be able to reach those milestones an activity plan must be made or a to do list as mentioned before. So, the milestone plan is limited in that aspect but at the same time it is good to have them in separate plans[1]. It is good to have one plan that shows all the activities and the milestones so the team members will have a good overview like the Gantt chart for the project schedule like previously mentioned. At the same time, it is also good to have one that only has the milestones like milestone chart for the stakeholders for instance. [6].
  • Using project milestones is a reactive control system. Which means the team engages first in the project activities and then they are evaluated in relation to the project goals. If the team underperforms massively, they will have to do it again to correct it. So, it is very important that the project manager is monitoring the project closely throughout the whole process but not just around when the milestones are due[12].
  • In theory and by looking at the milestone plan each milestone must be completed one by one which would make it a limitation. But in practice that is not the case, the team can start working on milestone four before milestone three is finished[1].

Advantages to project milestones

There are many advantages for using project milestones.

  • They help project managers to monitor deadlines so they can stay on top of everything[4]. As well as it helps project managers to give stakeholders updates on how the project is going[1].
  • They can help spot possible bottlenecks because many projects must rely on various teams and if they are not being monitored it can lead to delays.
  • By using project milestones, it becomes a lot easier to spot important dates and events. In addition, it helps everyone to see where the project is going and what has to be done to finish it.
  • Project managers can effectively distribute resources, so the projects are completed on time and within funding.
  • Project teams can see what they are accountable for in the project[4].

Annotated bibliography

This section includes references for further reading on Project Milestones

1. Andersen, E. S. (2006). Milestone planning—a different planning approach. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2006—Asia Pacific, Bangkok, Thailand. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute In this article Erling S. Andersen explains why milestone planning is a better tool than the traditional network planning tool. The article explains what milestones and milestone plan are.

2. Verzuh, E., (2005) The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management, 2nd ed., New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, This book provides guidance on the fundamental principles of PRINCE2. The book also emphasizes on how the method can fit multiple project sizes, environments and sizes.

3., AXELOS. 2017. Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2 2017 Edition. London: The Stationery Office Ltd. This book provides a set of standards and guidelines for project management. For example, the book gives insight to policies, procedures, methodologies, rules, techniques and life cycle phases that are needed to be able to practice project management.

4.n.d. Using Milestones to Track Project Progress and Accomplishments This article is a good read for those who want to know more about Project Milestones. The article explains what Project Milestones are and how to use them as well as in the end of the article there are some tips when using Project Milestones.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 Andersen, E. S. (2006). Milestone planning—a different planning approach. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2006—Asia Pacific, Bangkok, Thailand. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
  2. Moore, Kaleigh. n.d. The importance of project milestones (and why you need them). Accessed February 18, 2021.
  3. Verzuh, E., (2005) The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management, 2nd ed., New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons,
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Eade, Dion. n.d. Workflow Max. Accessed February 19, 2021.
  5. 5.0 5.1 , AXELOS. 2017. Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2 2017 Edition. London: The Stationery Office Ltd. Accessed February 16, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 P.M.I. (2017). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (6th ed.). Project Management Institute.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Harrin, Elizabeth. 2018. Using Milestones in Project Management. November 05. Accessed Feburary 19, 2021.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Westland, Jason. 2020. What Are Milestones in Project Management? September 23. Accessed February 19, 2021.
  9. 1010. The 10 Traits of Highly Effective Project Milestones. February 11. Accessed February 19, 2021.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 2019. How to Set and Track Project Milestones. December 12. Accessed February 18, 2021.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 n.d. Using Milestones to Track Project Progress and Accomplishments. Accessed February 19, 2021.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Pinto, J. (2010). Project Management: Achieving Competitive Advantage. Pearson Education, Inc. Prentice Hall, New Jersey.
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