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Managing Project Boundaries: Stages, Phases & Milestones (#25 in the Hut Introduction to Project Management)
By JISC infoNet

A well-constructed plan with clear deliverables should make it very easy to track the progress of your project as part of an ongoing monitoring and review process. Defining key stages, phases and milestones is an essential part of this process. Why three words? Although ‘stages’ and ‘phases’ sound similar there are distinct meanings in project terminology.

  • Stages: The intervals between Project Board Meetings – the end of a stage is a point where the Board can decide to continue with, or close, the project.
  • Phases: Distinct divisions between the types of work. For instance there may be a procurement phase, a testing phase, a pilot phase, a full implementation phase.
  • Milestones: Significant success points, several of which may occur within a phase – e.g. in a pilot phase of a VLE project, enrolment; first access; first assessments; first interactive session; first use of multimedia etc.

Phasing and milestones represent the logical sequence of activities required to achieve the project goals. Stage boundaries highlight points in the project where progress is reviewed and the plan reassessed. Stages and phases won’t necessarily coincide. Some phases will be too long to go without a meeting of the Project Board. Equally there may be more than one phase within a single stage.

The number of stages, phases and milestones in a plan is necessarily dependent on the scale and complexity of the project. In the section on the Sliding Planning Window we warn against having a plan that is overly complicated and detailed as this consumes as lot of resource simply keeping it up-to-date and dealing with the inevitable changes. However in Top Tips for Project Planning we also stress the need to have sufficient milestones to be able to demonstrate clear and regular progress to stakeholders.

Stage boundaries are key points at which you should be reviewing a number of aspects of the project:

  • Is the business case for the project still valid?1
  • Is the project meeting its objectives?
  • Has the risk situation altered?
  • Should the project progress to the next phase?

Only when the questions have been satisfactorily answered should you go on to plan the next phase in detail. As a Project Manager it is natural to want to see the project achieve its original purpose but you must take account of changing circumstances.

Stage boundaries are a time to focus on the bigger picture. Beware of hitting all your targets but missing the point.

1Is the Business Case still valid?

Example 1

Your project is developing an in-house system to record marks from student assessments. The supplier of your student record system suddenly announces that next month’s upgrade of the system (for which you have already paid) will include assessment functionality. The business case for your project has changed and you need to assess whether it is worth going ahead with an in-house development.

Example 2

The first phase of your project is a feasibility study. You are looking into acquiring a VLE and your cost/benefit analysis shows that it would not be worthwhile for your institution to purchase such a system. The project may not have produced the expected result but it has been a successful project if it helps you make the right decision for your institution.

JISC infoNet aims to be the UK’s leading advisory service for managers in the post-compulsory education sector promoting the effective strategic planning, implementation and management of information and learning technology.

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