Guidelines for Successful Project Milestone Planning

Guidelines for Successful Project Milestone Planning
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Milestones in Project Planning and Scheduling

This article is the first part of a series that discusses the effective use of milestones in project planning and scheduling. This opening article provides an introduction to project milestone planning, emphasizing its importance and providing general guidelines on how to select milestones that will be the most relevant for your project.

What is a Milestone?

We encounter milestones in all aspects of our lives, as an individual striving to achieve our life goals, as an employee working to advance an organization’s mission, and as a member of the human race trying to expand our collective knowledge and understanding about the world and beyond. Astronaut Neil Armstrong summed up the concept of a milestone perfectly as he stepped onto the lunar surface and enthusiastically declared, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Milestones are the small steps that lead to the ultimate goal whether it be developing of new product or service or advancing the exploration of space to the far reaches of the universe.

In its basic form, a milestone is an important event marked on a timeline and recognized when successfully reached. Milestones are the building blocks for the project’s schedule and often create forward momentum to propel the project along to completion. They can also be used effectively as primary checkpoints to see how well your project is doing and whether the project is on schedule and on budget.

Guidelines for Setting Milestones

When embarking on project milestone planning, you will first need to create a work breakdown structure to get an overview of all the tasks in a manageable outline or diagram. With this overview in hand begin to look for opportunities to setup milestones around the completion of key tasks and activities. Try to visualize a timeline of the important events that will advance the project to the next level. For example, in NASA’s “Race to the Moon” that began with President Kennedy’s pledge in 1961 to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, there were several significant milestones achieved before the Apollo 11 mission, including the successful missions of the Ranger series of unmanned probes that photographed, studied, and soft landed on the Moon. When selecting milestones be conscience of these parameters:

  • Frequency – As a project manager, you may be tempted to overuse milestones as a motivation tool to keep the team moving along the ladder to reach the surface of success, but don’t fall into the trap of labeling every task completion as a milestone. In turn, don’t adopt the other extreme approach by ignoring or not recognizing significant and relevant events as milestones particularly at junctions of the critical path. A good compromise is to consistently designate important deliverables as milestones.
  • Timing – Milestones that are spaced too far apart will not have the benefit of the momentum derived from motivating team members by recognizing their major achievements. However, when milestones, appropriately represented as diamonds in MS Project, are placed too closely together they quickly lose their luster and distinctiveness. As a rule of thumb try to space milestones at intervals for no longer than every two weeks for projects of several months in duration.
  • Visibility – Milestones need to be placed prominently in the project’s schedule and tracked periodically. Make sure that your milestones have been incorporated into your project scheduling, calendar, or other project tracking software program.
  • Accountability – Milestones are commitments that must be met on time. If a milestone is missed, it needs to be addressed immediately by reexamining the resources to determine if they are properly matched to the objectives.
  • Fallibility – It may sound counter-intuitive, but you should select challenging milestones that carry a degree of risk for failure. Not every venture of NASA undertaken to pave the way for the Apollo 11 mission was successful. Ranger 3, an unmanned probe sent to study the Moon missed its target by 22,000 miles. Don’t forget to treat milestones as learning experiences and opportunities to make adjustments early in the project’s execution.

By keeping these guidelines in mind when project planning milestones, you will able to achieve an appropriate balance between the easy and challenging milestones that will inspire your team members to stay motivated and feel a greater sense of accomplishment.


Author’s own experience in project milestone planning.

“American Experience | Race to the Moon | Timeline | PBS.” PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. (accessed March 7, 2011).

" Moon Timeline." (accessed March 7, 2011).

Image Credit: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11 Mission) courtesy of NASA’s public domain license at Wikimedia Commons

This post is part of the series: Milestones in Project Planning and Scheduling

This series of articles provides information and guidance on incorporating and managing milestones in project planning and scheduling.

  1. Project Milestone Planning
  2. Project Planning Typical Milestones
  3. Filling MS Project Milestones