What are project milestones in project management?

Big things can be intimidating. Whether that’s learning a new language, building a house, or eating a whole birthday cake — thinking about conquering the thing in its entirety makes us rightly feel a bit, well, scared.

Breaking things down into bitesize chunks is one way to make the project feel more manageable. It makes planning easier — and setting small goals psychologically helps us feel more motivated. Eating an entire cake in one sitting? Not so fun. Eating a birthday cake one slice at a time? Challenge accepted! The same goes for projects.

In this article, we’re going to take a look at project milestones — including what they are, why they’re important, and how to add milestones to your next project.

What are milestones in project management?

Milestones are key moments in a project. They’re a way of breaking up a big project into smaller, manageable tasks, where each milestone represents the completion of one phase of work. Think of it as a moment for managers (and the team) to pause and take stock of where they are and how far they’ve come.

Why should you track project milestones? 1. Keep on top of deadlines

Every project is made up of deadlines — usually lots of them. Not everyone needs to know when each of these has been met. Highlighting the main deliverables and turning them into milestones in your project schedule means anyone who wants a top-level view of progress can see what’s going on at a glance.

Top Tip: Milestones should reflect key moments in the project and make sense to those unfamiliar with the granular details, like stakeholders, top-level execs, and sponsors.

2. Identify delays or bottlenecks

When things are going belly-up, the worst possible thing you can do is bury your head in the sand. Project milestones can stop you from doing this. Why? Because they force you to pause and assess the project’s progress periodically.

3. Create a solid plan

Tasks are the building blocks of every project, and there tend to be a lot of them. Mapping out milestones makes it easier to plan ahead. It also helps you manage expectations: Stakeholders, sponsors, and high-level executives might not know (or want to know) every single detail. Mapping out milestones helps them plan and understand your schedule quickly and easily.

What’s the difference between a task and a milestone?

Every project is made up of tasks that take a set amount of time to complete. Milestones, on the other hand, are about moments that indicate forward progress. Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you distinguish between the two. If you answer ‘yes’ to any of these, it’s a milestone, not a task.

Is it an important moment in the project that indicates progress? Will this impact the final deadline? Is it a deliverable? Will it need to be reviewed by senior managers/stakeholders/other teams?

Top Tip: Don’t get milestones mixed up with tasks. Do that, and you’ll end up with far too many milestones and lose the benefits they bring.

What’s the difference between a milestone and a goal?

Goals are things you want to achieve in the future. They could be expressed as KPIs, or simply be an overarching set of things you want to achieve by the end of the project. For example, your

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