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Strategic insights
Milestones Defined

Written by on May 28, 2005

What is a milestone? What is the difference between milestones, tasks and phases? When is a milestone? How do you manage milestones? These are questions I get quite often and instead of replying to each one, I have summed up an answer here.

What is a milestone?

There are basically two types of milestones.

  1. A specific date that indicates the completion of something.
  2. An event in the future that you hope to reach.

The first one is the traditional type of milestones. When US president Kennedy proclaimed, "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."

He was actually setting a milestone. It was a specific date in time where work had to be finished.

The second one is usually the types of milestone you set for yourself. You want to buy a Corvette or you want to get a Ph.D. - but you do not know the specific date this will happen. In this case the milestone indicates when you achieved your goal. The day the Corvette is parked in your driveway that is your milestone.

It is also commonly found in research institutes. "We are looking for a way to cure cancer" - and the milestone marks when a cure is found.

It is the completion of important events in your project.

What is the difference between milestones, tasks and phases?

The difference is everything, they are far from alike.

  • A phase marks the beginning and works as the container of a group of tasks. In a simple software project you would have 3 phases - analysis, programming, and implementation.
  • A task is the specific actions you need to take within each phase.
  • A milestone marks the end of a phase and all the tasks within.

It is important to know that phases and milestones are not action based - only tasks are. Instead they serve as a guide to your project. A phase helps put individual tasks into logical groups - so that you know how each task is related. It is the same for milestones. It is not something you do, it is something you reach.

Tasks are actions that need to be done - actual work.

When is a milestone?

It is always at the end of something. A milestone marks the completion of a group of tasks - the phase. The best way to describe this is when you say "we have reached a turning point" - that is in reality a milestones.

You would often have several milestones in your project, and traditionally you could even have several milestones within a phase. But, this is something I recommend against. You should only have one milestone for each phase.

The reason being that a milestone is not an action it is an indication of when the phase is completed. It will be very confusing to have two indicators for the same thing - what if you only reach one of them?

In traditional project planning a milestone also indicate a decision. No, it doesn't - is not an action. A milestone is when the tasks are completed, and when a decision has been reached (in cases where they are needed). You should add needed decision as tasks.

Note: I recommend that you define the last task in each phase as "Do we move on?" - do we or can we continue with the project?

How do you manage milestones?

You don't - you manage people and tasks. By now, you know that milestones only serve to indicate the end. There is nothing you can do to milestones that will make your project go better or worse. There is however tons of things you can do with the tasks.

Look at it this way. If you reach the point in time where your milestone should be, and it isn't - you have failed. The phase was not completed on time, the tasks within was not carried out as planned.

Good project management is not about managing the end. That is too late. Instead a good manager helps and guides your project during the process. If a task is slowing down, add more resources or talk to your project team. Create energy; keep the project team motivated and efficient. Make sure they got what they need to get the tasks done.

That is what you manage.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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