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The phrase project milestone is tossed around in the project world as though it has a consistent and well-understood meaning. The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK, 5th edition) defines milestone as “a significant point or event in a project, program, or portfolio.” That definition, while true, is so heavenly that it is no earthly good.

Project milestones can add clarity to your communications and scheduling if you take the time to determine, in advance, how you are going to use them. Here are seven ways that you can use project milestones to your advantage.

Designate activities that are concrete enough that progress can be fairly estimated.

In the construction world, when the activity involves a physical change in the project, it’s much easier to estimate progress. One can walk around the site and count the number of windows or the amount of wiring that has been installed.

In the business world, it can be much harder to estimate progress. For many activities, the estimate is meaningless. The activity is either done or it’s not done. And when multiple people have to sign off on the deliverable, it’s not done until every signoff has been received.

How many times have you written a draft of a memo and thought you were about finished, only to learn that more work was needed? That someone else had thought of a better way? Or had a different idea? When you are working with knowledge workers, estimating percent complete is often a waste of time. That said, periodically, we need to step back and measure our project progress. Perhaps designating the places where we intend to do that is a good step.

Identify the activities that represent the final step in a work package.

Often, the final step in a work package is a minor activity that represents closure. For examples: putting code into production, signing the contract for the security firm, and sending the media file to the printer are all very small activities that have been preceded by significant amounts of work. They represent finishing a large block of work. Designating them as project milestones may help you move activities through the pipeline.

This approach may not work well if you are doing status reporting on project milestones for senior management unless executives understand that these milestones represent the culmination of large blocks of work. Typically, they are used to seeing a more substantial item listed as a milestone.

Set up your project in phases and pinpoint the activities that mark the end of the different phases.

Some projects lend themselves to phased development and a reevaluation of the project investment decision at different points in the process. These points are sometimes referred to as phase-gates or stage-gates. 

This is often done in highly complex projects where a full commitment to the project outcome cannot be made at the outset. When using stage-gates, it can be helpful to think about success factors for each phase.

Determine when, in the course of the project, you will invite the client to join you.

For projects that are being done for clients, milestones can represent a point at which it is time to connect with the client. It may mean that you share a draft of that document that you were hired to write, or demo the software that you’ve been building, or invite the client in to view and discuss the prototype that you have been working on designing. The point is to periodically connect with the client and get their perspective.

Never assume that you know what the client wants. We are not mind readers. Ask your client for feedback often. Some project teams organize their work in two-week sprints and invite the client in to review progress at the end of every sprint. Not all projects lend themselves to that frequency, so determine early when you will connect with the client.

Use milestone payments.

Some projects lend themselves to being billed in chunks – for example, 25% up front, 25% at the completion of activity X, 25% at the completion of activity Y, and 25% at the end. There are a number of advantages to using some kind of periodic billing from the perspective of project leaders.

From the perspective of your customer, one advantage of billing at milestones, rather than monthly, is that it is easier for the customer to associate that check that he/she will write with actual progress on the project, rather than just time worked.

Recognize those activities that require an interface with a vendor or other entity.

Suppose you are working on a technology project that involves code being supplied by another technology firm. Since both firms need to be working from the most recent code, milestones could be used to designate the points in the project when the work that has been accomplished is put into production, and everyone begins working from the next code version.

Or, suppose you are managing a project that depends on input from an outside source – for example, a branding or strategy consultant. You could designate, as milestones, those activities that are dependent on that input. The advantage to designating those activities that way is that it becomes clear to the consultant when his/her input is needed.

Or, let’s say you are working on an R&D project at a major university and several blocks of work require that you have access to some pretty sophisticated equipment. This requires coordination with the university – as the equipment will be moved into your lab on a temporary basis. You could designate those activities as milestones to indicate this “vendor” relationship.

Define activities that represent celebratory points.

One use of milestones that can be helpful when teams are incredibly busy is to use project milestones as the point at which a celebration will be held. It can be so tempting to work, work, work when the pressure is on. But teams need to step back periodically and have some fun. That might mean a movie night with families, pizza delivered at lunch (and paid for by the boss), or a sporting event.

There is one important caveat when working with milestones. Watch that your team doesn’t ignore your less critical activities in favor of working on milestones.

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