Milestones in Project Planning

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A good and balanced project plan is a crucial success factor for a project, as insufficient resource planning and unrealistic schedules count for 30 % of the reason when looking at why projects fail.[1] There is a wide range of different approaches and tools used for project planning. This article clarifies milestone planning and how to use it in project management.

According to Managing Successful projects with PRINCE2 is a milestone defined as "an event on a schedule which marks the completion of key activities".[2] Milestones are a tool used in project management to mark the completion of a major phase in a project. Milestone planning is results-oriented and a milestone should present what is supposed to be achieved at a given time in the project. Milestones may influence the way activities in a project are sequenced. Milestones are targets in the project phase, it does not have a duration, but they need to be completed at before a given date. A milestone list for a project is used to estimate activities duration as well as develop the project schedule.[3]

This article will contain two main parts, one with a focus on how to set milestones and a second with a focus on how to implement milestones in the project schedule. The first part of this article will also contain an introduction to project planning and milestones in general. While the second part will contain an example of a milestone chart and how to incorporate it in the project schedule displayed in a Gantt chart.


Figure 1: The different inputs needed to complete a project schedule. Illustration based on information from A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) [3], made by Rikke Louise Kjær Knudsen.

A project schedule is used to obtain a clear overview who and when the project will deliver the products, services or results. According to Project Management: A guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK guide) Project schedule management consists of six processes [3]:

  • Plan Schedule Management
  • Define Activities
  • Sequence Activities
  • Estimate Activities Durations
  • Develop Schedule
  • Control Schedule

Depending on the size of the project will some of these processes be linked tightly.

There are different scheduling methods, it is the project management team job to determine which method to use, the two most common are critical path or an agile approach. This article will primarily focus on milestone planning and briefly introduce the agile approach to Rolling Wave planning. When the project management team has conducted the project-specific data into the six processes, it is possible to create the project schedule by entering the data into a scheduling tool, this is illustrated in figure 1. When a project schedule has been created it should be presented graphically. Often this is done by an Activity list, a Bar/Gantt Chart or a Network Diagram.

Milestone planning

Milestone planning is a way of planning a project on a basis of milestones. A milestone is defined as "an event on a schedule which marks the completion of key activities."[2] Milestones are described as a desired condition or state in the project at a certain point in the timeline of the project. As milestones can be understood by non-experts, is it a good and easy way to keep stakeholders updated and satisfied. As stakeholders can see how the project is developing as more and more milestones are reached. [4] The milestone planning approach differs from traditional project planning, as the focus is on achieving the set goals, instead of executing activities and tasks. When a project is planned from milestones the road to the desired state is not planned. Therefore will it be possible to achieve the state for a milestone in a variety of ways.

When using milestone planning, the mentality of the project team needs to switch from activity-oriented thinking and planning to result-oriented thinking and planning. This is done by answering the question "what should be achieved?" before "how should it be achieved?". The desired results the project management team would like to achieve should be discussed and determined, from this, a milestone plan should be created. A milestone plan should consist of both the desired end result as well as interminate results and indicators.

Milestones can early in the project's timeline give an indication of issues associated with the project schedule. In an ongoing project, the milestone and activity plan should give the project manager a better overview of activities which will be critical to the timeline.[2] Milestone is an easy way for a project manager to assure project stakeholders that the project is proceeding as planned.

Milestones in project stages

The milestones have to be decided early in the project stage. The following list contains the phases of project management were milestones figure in. [2]

  1. Starting up a project
    • Prepare the outline business case - Project manager determines the key milestones.
  2. Directing a project
    • Authorize initiation - The project definition is confirmed by the project board. This should include the confirmation of key milestones.
    • Authorize the project - The project plan is validated and the achievability of the project plan and milestones should be approved.
  3. Initiating a project
    • Create the project plan - The project is reviewed, the deliverables and predetermined milestones are checked, they should match the project brief.
  4. Controlling a stage
    • Authorize a work package - The work there has to be done during the project is set into packages. For each package is the milestones, their tolerances, effort, cost, and end date defined.

Defining and setting milestones

Figure 2: A simple milestone plan, this example contains 5 milestones. The figure shows the logical dependency between the milestones. Made by Rikke Louise Kjær Knudsen.

The number of milestones and the duration between them is critical. As a general rule, there should be fewer milestones than deliverables but still enough to ensure eventual issues can be detected and solved, so the project plan can proceed as expected.[2] It is important that project managers attach the right importance or value to the milestones, so all the concerned are working hard to achieve the desired results for the milestones. If the milestones do not add value or importance to the project, they end up being trivial.

When conducting a milestone plan there should be a logical dependency between the milestone, see a simple milestone plan in figure 2. The figure displays the logically flow milestone to milestone and shows that it is logically impossible to obtain the results form milestone 2 before the results from milestone 1 are finalized. A milestone diagram should not be connected to activities. Some activities start long before the milestone is within a target range, while others first start when the latest milestone has been reached.

Figure 3: The milestone schedule shows a description of the milestone as well as the desired date for the results. The summary schedule displays the duration of each of the activities, Activity 1.1.3 cannot start before 1.1.1 and 1.1.2 are finished. Illustration based on information from A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) [3], made by Rikke Louise Kjær Knudsen.

A milestone can be many things within a project, there is no rule for what there can be called a milestone. The only important thing is that it should be possible to determine if the results behind a milestone are reached or not. Examples of milestones could be "description of a company current conditions", "delivery of a product", "completion of a room" etc. All depending on which type of project are being managed.[2] When the results are good enough, the milestone is reached and the job is finished [4]. After the milestones are determined, they should be listed with the date when the milestone needs to be achieved. It is important to align within the project management team whether the milestones are mandatory, and in that case, which is not.

How to set milestones

  1. Set key milestones: Determine the key milestone in the startup phase of the project - which results do the project manager what to achieve from this project.
  2. Set intermediate milestones: The milestones should all work in the direction of the desired end result.
    Note: Do not set too many or too few milestones, all the milestones need to be of value for the project.
  3. Create a milestone plan: List all the milestones, both the desired results as well as the date for the milestone.
  4. Define activities: Identify the activities there has to be performed in order to achieve the milestones. It is a complex phase as both the activity and its duration and requirements should be identified.
    Note: Be flexible as the activities needed to achieve the milestones can change during the project. Revise the activities before the work for a new milestone is started. But remember, the preliminary work to achieve a milestone can be started long before the previous milestone is reached.
  5. Create the project plan: The project plan should include both milestone and activity plan.
  6. Control: During the project should the project manager control that the milestones are completed.

All the way through the process 1- 3 should it be avoided to plan activities, how to get there, the focus should only be on setting the goals and describe desired results.

When a full milestone plan is conducted the project management team can start answering the question on how to achieve the desired results. The next step for the processes encompasses the methods and activities there has to be performed in order to obtain the different milestones.[5] At this stage of the project planning, it could be beneficial to include Rolling Wave Planning. This is an agile planning approach, where most of the planning is done "just-in-time", and the planning in the front end for the project is minimized. The rolling wave approach is based on the development of an upfront high-level plan, this should be updated as the project progresses and the milestones and activities are getting closer. The milestone and the rolling wave planning approach are both built on the theory that a project plan is difficult to develop in the initial phase of the project.[6][7]

Breif example of a milestone schedule

There are multiple ways of displaying a milestone list, it could be as a list or as a Gantt Chart, an example of this is displayed in figure 3.[3] The milestone schedule in figure 3, shows one key milestone "Completion of Product Z". The milestone has intermediate milestones, it is not possible to complete milestone 1.1.3 MF before de previous milestones are reached. The milestone dates are displayed with diamonds, symbolizing the date of the given milestone. The summary schedule displays the work packages which needs to be developed and the time it takes. The development and delivery of "New Product Z" cannot be finished before the subactivities as work package 1 - 3 are finished. Likewise, marketing will not be able to advertise for the product before a prototype is ready, and the production is ready to produce the demand. As opposed to the milestone schedule does the summary schedule includes the expected calendar units spent on the activities. During the project should the milestone list be kept updated and milestones which are achieved should be ticked off.

There has been developed a wide range of IT systems to support project planning, all to them have different advantages and limitations, some support milestone planning while others do not. Software that supports milestone planning differs from software for traditional network planning. It is up to the project manager to choose the right system, that underpins necessary for the given project. [4]


Milestone planning has proven to have numerous advantages, first and foremost can it be used of project managers to plan a project, where they do not have a clear idea of which activities the project embodies, yet. It is a tool which makes it possible to start the planning from desired results and wait with actual activity planning until more information on the needed activities occurs. Secondly, milestones are an easy way of keeping track of the timeline for a project, but also an easy way to show stakeholders progress in the project and keep them satisfied.

However, not everybody agrees on its excellence, milestone planning does have some limitations. Milestones should be introduced early in project planning and should be monitored and updated all the way through the project. Not to know which activities are needed to complete the milestones are a huge limitation, as the project manager can end up with an overambitious schedule, due to erroneous estimation. Another thing to make sure of is the whole project. During a project, it is still important to focus on the whole project and the final milestone and not get obsessed with intermediate milestones. Even though milestones incorporated it is the final product or delivery that counts.

Annotated bibliography

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), Project Management Institute, 6th Edition - 2017 | Chapter 6

Annotation: The reference is a Standard by Project Management Institute (PMI), with the focus for projects. The focus of chapter 6 is Project Schedule Management and tools to manage project schedules. This reference describes which inputs and outputs are needed to develop a project schedule.

Andersen, E. S. (1996). Warning: activity planning is hazardous to your project's health! International Journal of Project Management | Page 89-94.

Annotation: This paper argues against the planning method Network and Activity Planning. The paper focuses on a result-orientated way of planning a project, where milestones are used as results there should be achieved during a project. The writer argues that a project manager does not have the necessary information at the beginning of the project to do activity planning, this often leads to miserable results. While milestone planning makes it possible to wait until til milestone is starting before activities are chosen. This reference does not referee to other references that back up the opinion that activity planning is hazardous to projects. Why the reference not can stand alone.

Cobb, C. (2011). Making sense of agile project management. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley | Chapter 6

Annotation: This chapter, Agile Project Management, includes agile project management methods and principles. It explains general rules for the methods and the roles within agile project management. The chapter was primarily used for information about Rolling Wave Planning and in general the Agile Project Management.


  1. The Standish Group International, Inc. (2015). CHAOS REPORT 2015. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Mar. 2019].
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 The Standard for Project Management, Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2, The Stationery Office Ltd, 6th Edition - 2017 | Chapter 9
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), Project Management Institute, 6th Edition - 2017 | Chapter 6
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 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.
  5. Andersen, E. S. (1996). Warning: activity planning is hazardous to your project's health! International Journal of Project Management | Page 89-94.
  6. Fairley, R. (2009). Managing and leading software projects. Hoboken, N.J: Wiley | Chapter 5 & 7
  7. Cobb, C. (2011). Making sense of agile project management. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley | Chapter 6
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