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Milestones in project management: How to use them correctly?

5 min read

Have you created a really good project plan and thought of everything from responsibilities and tasks to dependencies? But have you also set milestones? These "checkpoints" are relatively easy to use - but can be the icing on the cake for your project structure: they give you and your team a good overview at all times. But what exactly are milestones in project management? How do you use them correctly and how can you visualise them?

What are milestones actually?

You set milestones in classic and hybrid project management. As measuring or control points, they represent milestones on the project timeline. A milestone marks the achievement of a specific goal or result or the start of a new project phase. It can also be a decision point at which the further course of action is determined. Additional checkpoints within a project phase can also ensure even greater commitment to the achievement of goals.

According to DIN 69 900, however, a milestone is an "event of special significance". It should therefore not follow just any intermediate step.

What distinguishes milestones from other events in the course of a project??
Milestones do not require time. They are always points on the timeline. They provide orientation as signposts, but do not represent an additional task.

Milestones vs. other elements in project management

Milestones are often confused with other central elements of project management. However, there are clear distinguishing features:

  • Milestone or goal?
    Goals describe what the project wants to achieve in the future. Instead, you use a milestone to mark a step that has already been completed on the way there.
  • Milestone or project phase?
    A project phase often lasts several weeks or even months and includes various tasks for the team members. A milestone, on the other hand, "only" marks the beginning or end of this period. It signals the milestone to the employees and can be the starting signal for the next project phase. However, it does not trigger any additional tasks.
  • Milestone or project result?
    The project result is an (interim) product or a specific result. With a milestone, you set a marker on the project timeline that the product has been developed.
  • Milestone or task?
    Completing tasks advances the project and takes time. A milestone simply indicates that a specific task or group of tasks has been successfully completed. As a project manager, this allows you to emphasise the importance of successfully completed tasks for the progress of the project.

Why are milestones important?

Milestones provide orientation. They therefore bring some important advantages for you as the project manager and the entire project team:

Milestones give projects a clear structure.

A milestone in project management illustrates the progress in your project plan. Successful project completion is only possible if certain milestones are reached. Milestones allow you to keep an eye on project progress, important deadlines and potential bottlenecks. As "lighthouses", they show your team the way to the goal.

Milestones ensure quality.

Milestones prevent all tasks and project phases from simply being ticked off one after the other. If you define a milestone very precisely, you ensure that the results meet the specifications and a high-quality end result is achieved.

Milestones motivate.

Milestones give you and your team direct feedback: having successfully completed a challenging intermediate stage or having reached the milestone before the deadline - this provides a motivational boost. Thanks to milestones, successes can be celebrated in between: the path to the project goal becomes clearer and every partial success provides additional motivation.

Milestones facilitate project management.

Milestones show you and your team whether the project is on schedule. Milestones help with navigation, especially in complex projects with numerous tasks and many project phases: Will your team reach the next milestone? If not, what does this mean for the rest of the project plan?

How do you formulate milestones correctly?

When formulating milestones, it is often noticeable that they are too vague or rather describe an activity. Let's take the following example: A concept for a product presentation is to be created. If the milestone is "Concept for product presentation", a few questions arise: Should the concept still be created? Is the concept still to be discussed or has it already been finalised?

Practical tip for the "correct" formulation of milestones:
Combine the respective event and its state to the checkpoint. So use the form "noun + verb".

These questions will help you:

  • What detailed results should be available at the milestone?
  • How can the achievement of the milestone be proven in concrete terms?
  • Is this milestone really a measuring point without a duration?

Or you can simply orientate yourself on the individual project phases and end each stage with a completion milestone - such as "Analysis completed" or "Test phase completed".

Here are some practical examples of how milestones are formulated and documented:

Milestone Proof
Concept for product presentation created Document is finalised
Kick-off meeting completed Protocol available
Speaker booked for corporate event Signed contract documents are available

What mistakes should you avoid with milestones?

Milestones in project management require a little sensitivity and care. However, there are no fixed rules for this method. There are only two points where teams often make unfavourable decisions:

  • Too many milestones are set: The optimal number of milestones depends on the size and scope of the project in question. As a general rule, milestones should only mark really important checkpoints in the project plan. Otherwise, they no longer stand out as "signposts".
  • Milestones are defined as tasks: A milestone in project management is an event that does not itself require any effort. The tasks that lead your team to this point have already been completed.

How are milestones displayed?

Milestones can be visualised in different ways. The type of project management is always decisive. For example, a milestone network plan can be created as a rough overview of a project - especially for the management level or client.

Milestones can also be visualised very well in a Gantt chart. On the one hand, the schedule shows all tasks as a bar chart over time. It also visualises the dependency of tasks on other tasks.

Practical tip: Milestones in the project management tool Stackfield

In Stackfield, you can also easily create project plans in the Gantt chart and insert milestones. You can either add a new milestone or convert an existing task into a milestone. To show the progress of the project, the diamond symbols have different colours: open milestones are pink, overdue milestones are red and completed milestones are green. Of course, you can only assign due dates - and not time periods - to the milestones.

Milestones in the Gantt view
Milestones in the Gantt view on Stackfield

Conclusion: Milestones as an important tool for successful project management

Milestones can help you in project management to successfully achieve your goals within the planned time frame. Setting significant milestones has many positive effects on overall planning, the quality of results and the motivation of your team. Project management tools such as Stackfield make it particularly easy for your team to set milestones and keep an eye on the progress of the project.

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Cristian Mudure
About the Author:
Cristian Mudure is the Founder and CEO of Stackfield. He loves digital business models and spends his spare time on the tennis court.
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