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The Magic of Milestones
By Barry Otterholt

How do you know if your project is on track? What does “on track” even mean?

As a Sponsor, you have other business you need to attend to, so don’t have the luxury of spending a lot of time trying to learn what your project manager knows. You must get the information in a simple and compact form. It must reveal whether the project is accomplishing what was intended to be accomplished, at different points along the overall timeline.

“The safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without mileposts.” – C. S. Lewis

Milestones are magic. They are the mileposts along the journey of a project that let you know if you’re on the right track, and whether you’re on pace to arrive at the destination on time. Having milestones in your project timeline allows you to engage the right way, balancing the need for involvement with the need to give latitude.

Examples of milestones:

  • The project is done. It has delivered what was expected, when it was expected.
  • A demonstration. Components of a product have been integrated and can be exercised.

  • A prototype. A component of a product that can demonstrate a concept.

  • A mockup. A component of a product can be visualized, before detailed work begins.

  • A document. A plan, an executed contract, a detailed specification, test results, lessons learned, or any other artifact that can be validated.

  • An accomplishment. A less tangible but verifiable task completed, such as a team having been formed or training on a new technique having been completed.

If structured properly, a milestone will reveal the pace of the project. It will also provide some manner of evidence that the outcome of the project is evolving per the agreed timeline.

The very first milestone will come from you. It’s when you need the project done. Your project manager will then break down your project objectives into packages of work required to get it done on time. From this detailed understanding, he or she can define a series of milestones across the project timeline so throughput and the evolving outcome can be evident.

If your project manager is on track (e.g. hitting the milestones, with clear evidence of emerging value), you can continue to give latitude in the day-to-day execution of the project. Missed milestones provide an early warning sign that things are not going according to plan. Your project manager should understand and be able to explain the root cause of the variance, and explain the corrective actions needed to get it back on track.

You should not allow milestones to be redefined without proper rationale. Changing milestones to match the work being done is like changing laws to suit people that break them. The odds are very good that if early milestones are missed, later milestones will be missed by an even greater degree. It’s best to have candid conversations early, so adjustments can be made to deal with real root cause.

Milestones can serve you well. Center your conversations with your project manager around them.

Barry Otterholt has been in project management for 30 years. He is a Certified Management Consultant (CMC) and a Project Management Professional (PMP). He works with public and private sector companies in the USA, the UK and Scandinavia. Mr. Otterholt was a Director with Microsoft, a senior consultant with Deloitte Consulting, and a COO with a nationwide consumer electronics enterprise. He enjoys teaching project management at Northwest University and writing his essays on project management which have been published in PMI and IMC newsletters. He lives near Seattle in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

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