Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
February 27, 2024 · 10 min read

What are project milestones? How to set & track milestones

What are project milestones? How to set & track milestones title image

Most people think of project milestones as just a great way to plan, monitor, and tick off key events in your project’s timeline — but they do so much more than that.

According to a recent survey, 85% of project managers say they’re actively managing more than one project at a time. With so many moving parts, milestones become an essential way to step out of your day-to-day tasks, and get a bird’s eye view of your progress toward the project’s goal.

If you’re new to project management, knowing how to break your project down into meaningful actions, tasks, and milestones is a key skill for success.

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In this guide, we’ll dive deep into project milestones, looking at what they are, how to use them, and the common mistakes to avoid along the way.

What are milestones in project management?

A milestone is a significant event in the project used to measure progress toward the ultimate goal or objective.

But apart from being a significant event, there are no rules on what can and can’t be a project milestone. Depending on your team, project, and project management style, you could include everything from the start and end of the project, a new phase, a key deliverable, a review, a budget check, or even just a crucial meeting as a project milestone.

Illustration in blues and blacks showing a calendar and a variety of milestones listed
Source: PulseHRM.com

Unfortunately, while the open endedness of what is a milestone can be liberating for some, it can also make it confusing for others.

The issue often comes up in understanding and differentiating milestones from other key moments or elements of your project — such as tasks, actions, and issues. While there’s a bit of crossover between these terms, they should be used in their own specific ways:

Illustrated table showing the differences between Task, Action, Issue and Milestone divided each into Who?, What?, When?

The bottom line: Milestones are memorable moments along your project’s journey that require the completion of many tasks, actions, and issues. But what moments are truly “memorable?”

Examples of project milestones you should be using

To really nail home what a good project milestone is takes time and experience. To start, let’s look at six real-world examples, and why they make good milestones:

Milestones are a project manager’s secret weapon for keeping stakeholders happy.

Milestones can be any significant event that is a good marker in your project. No two projects are the same — but these examples are a good place to start.

The 5 major benefits of using milestones

While milestones are useful for checking in on your progress, implementing them will bring you and your stakeholders many other benefits, including:

As a bonus: Milestones make project reporting easier. As a project manager, admin tasks such as creating project status updates can drain your time. Milestones serve as easy reference points, helping you quickly and easily measure progress and pull together reporting that tells your project’s story.

Planio screenshot of the roadmap view with the same milestones showing as in the gantt chart screenshot above

Step-by-step: How to create, track, and use project milestones

Milestones are a fundamental part of project management — and it’s essential that everyone on your team understands how to use them properly.

Here’s a quick and easy way to start creating milestones that will help you effectively measure your project, keep stakeholders aligned, and motivate your team to achieve their goals.

1. Clearly understand your project goals

Milestones help guide the way from A to B — but without a destination, there’s no way to know where you’re going. Before you even begin thinking of creating milestones, make sure your project goals and objectives are clearly defined and understood by the whole team.

Practical steps to take:

Real-life case study:

Brad is a project manager for FitEscape, a technology company that helps young people book fitness holidays.

Brad has been assigned a project to refresh the company’s website. He sits down with the IT Director to discuss the project’s goals and they agree on three: Re-align the website to FitEscape’s new branding, reduce the number of website pages from 45 to 20, and increase website performance by 30%.

2. Break down your plan into phases and tasks

Milestones work hand in hand with other aspects of your schedule. This means they aren’t usually created until the project schedule and critical tasks are defined.

For step two, set out the project methodology and associated phases you’ll follow alongside the essential, high-level tasks the team must complete.

Practical steps to take:

Real-life case study:

Brad gets into the details of his project by creating a project plan. He builds the plan around a 4-phase (Concept, Design, Execute, and Launch) Agile framework, while also requesting his budget and resources. Next, he breaks the key tasks down for each phase and uses reference class forecasting to estimate how long each will take.

3. Look for milestones in key transitional moments

Now that you know more about the world around you, it’s time to identify the milestones that will help you track progress and communicate clearly to stakeholders.

The first place to look is in transitional moments, such as the start and end of the project, the end of each project phase, and the creation of new products.

Practical steps to take:

Planio screenshot of an Agile Board coloured according to the issue priorities

Planio’s Agile boards are easy to use and can help you organize all of your tasks and deliverables in one place.

Real-life case study:

Alongside the milestones at the end of each life cycle phase, Brad identifies milestones in several project deliverables. These include milestones when 10, 15, and 20 website pages have been re-branded and the point at which he finishes the website’s performance testing.

Brad sees these as key indicators that he and the team are progressing and will be a great way to keep stakeholders happy.

4. Hunt down additional milestones in approvals and review points

Where many new project managers go wrong is in only linking milestones to deliverables. Especially in highly regulated industries, gaining approvals and passing project reviews are equally important. Make sure to include those, too.

Practical steps to take:

Look for other key events in your project that could serve as milestones. Here are three great examples:

Real-life case study:

As part of his project, Brad needs to identify 25 pages of the website that will be removed. Brad cannot make this decision alone and must present it as a proposal to the IT Director. Brad logs this meeting as a milestone he’ll need to complete to deliver the project.

5. Overlay your milestones onto your project plan

Milestones need context, and that context is your broader project plan. Overlaying your milestones helps show everyone where the key moments fall and how they take you on the journey from start to finish. They also identify project bottlenecks and risks, as well as opportunities to celebrate success.

Screenshot of Planio showing three milestones in one project and the issues in those milestones

Planio keeps all of your tasks and milestones together in one easy-to-access place — so you can quickly see if your team is over-extended.

Practical steps to take:

Real-life case study:

Brad reviews his project schedule and overlays his phase, deliverables, and approval meeting milestones to show the key events clearly and when they will happen. It also helps him see that there are four key milestones centered around September when he plans to be on holiday. He re-organizes his timeline to remove the risky bottleneck.

Project milestone planning isn’t always easy sailing. Projects are constantly changing and evolving and you’ll need to follow suit.

6. Visualize your milestone plan and share with stakeholders

While it’s good for a project manager to have a plan, the real benefits come when everyone can collaborate, communicate, and understand the key milestones. To optimize team effectiveness, a great milestone plan is one that everyone can access and understand throughout the project.

Practical steps to take:

Real-life case study:

Brad gets his project team together to review the milestone plan, discussing the key project events and how they contribute to the overall goal. To do this, Brad gets everyone on a video call, sharing the Gantt Chart in Planio. This makes it easy for him to gain feedback and make changes live on the call.

7. Use milestones to track your project to completion

Milestone planning isn’t a one-time-only exercise. With your milestones created, you must put them to good use throughout the project, using them to evidence progress, uncover issues, and keep the team motivated.

Practical steps to take:

Real-life case study:

Brad incorporates his milestones into his project reporting, using them to show what the project has achieved over time. As Brad builds up a good relationship with the IT Director, he is trusted to decide on the website pages to delete himself, meaning he no longer requires a major sign-off meeting. Brad removes this milestone from his plan.

Project milestone pitfalls: Don’t make these common mistakes

Unfortunately, project milestone planning isn’t always easy sailing. Projects are constantly changing and evolving, and your approach to planning and milestones needs to follow suit.

Here are a few common mistakes that project managers make with milestones, and how to avoid them:

Illustration in blues and blacks of the pitfalls listed below, that project managers make when planning milestones

Track major events with project milestones in Planio

Projects are complicated, but effective milestone planning can help everyone see the forest from the trees. By identifying key milestones, you can shine a light on your project’s progress, keep stakeholders happy, and motivate team members.

To make milestones even easier, consider trying Planio with your team. Planio is a simple-to-use tool that provides everything you need to complete a project — from task management and schedule planning, to time tracking, team text and video chat, collaboration tools, and more.

Try Planio with your team — free for 30 days (no credit card required!)