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How to use milestones in IT project management

So, you’re looking to set milestones for your software development project. Maybe it’s your first time doing so, and you don’t know exactly how to approach the task. Or maybe you’ve tried, and it didn’t go as well as you expected, so you’re looking to improve your milestone-setting skills. You can go about optimizing this process in two ways. One way is learning by doing, which is great, but costly and time-consuming. Another way is to draw from experts’ experience and knowledge. In this article, we will use our years of experience in helping clients with planning and executing software development projects to answer the most common questions that come up when project managers start setting milestones. Let’s dive in!



How do I use project milestones in software development?

Setting milestones is an integral step in project planning, before starting the work. However, you can choose to add new milestones at any time – the list of milestones isn’t set in stone!

As we indicated in our previous guide, milestones are moments in time that you can use as markers to make sure your project is on track.

It’s a good idea to set the completion of key tasks (or groups of them) as milestones, especially if other tasks can’t be completed without first achieving the key task. You can use milestones as a signal that it’s time to move on to the next phase of the project.

Software development projects often follow a similar pattern of eight core milestones: requirements gathering, requirements validation, completion of predevelopment planning, implementation, completion of quality assurance testing, completion of user acceptance testing, deployment, and then some milestones related to post-launch support.

As you can see, these represent moments in time, and it’s not possible to achieve one without first reaching the previous milestone.

Most of the time, project milestones will be closely tied to the project schedule, meaning that at the planning stage, the milestones can give you a frame of reference for the project timeline. During execution, track whether your milestones are reached at the designated time to help discover potential delays and bottlenecks early on.

We believe in milestone setting so much that not only do we apply this method when developing apps for our clients, but we also make this an integral part of the software we deliver.

When helping develop Green Planner, we started by setting project milestones, which helped us ensure that throughout the project’s duration, we were on track to the ultimate goal. In the end, we developed an internal production management system, where planners can get useful insights into the progress of their projects with clearly visualized milestones, all on a convenient and user-friendly dashboard.

How many milestones should I set?

There’s no one-size-fits-all formula for the number of milestones in a project. Some projects will have just two or three, while others will have a dozen or more.

The answer to this question will depend on the nature and complexity of your project.

If you’d like to estimate the number of milestones you should have in your project, look at the key tasks and phases of your project. You can tie the milestones to the completion of these if you so choose.

Just remember: Milestones are moments in time, and reaching them means you’re at a very important point on the timeline, so set them accordingly.

Should I assign dates to milestones?

Assigning a target date for milestones is very important. These are often tied to the deadlines for key tasks, so they help you determine whether you’re on target timewise or facing a delay.

As pivotal moments on the project timeline, they give your team an insight into the progress you’ve made, which can help you plan your next steps accordingly.

This can also help you plan your resources better. For example, if you’re hiring developers as a Team Extension to help you complete certain parts of the work (and reach certain milestones), you can contract them for the duration of the task, using the target date for the milestone as the contract end date.

How do I visualize milestones?

Milestones can look different depending on the way you track your project’s progress. Some software solutions will come with ready-made, automatic visualizations.

Probably the easiest way is via a Kanban board – but keep in mind that in this method, the items on the board are tasks, not milestones. However, completion of a key task may very well constitute a milestone, in which case moving the task into the “Done” column will mean reaching the milestone.

Most project management applications offer a timeline view with different phases, tasks, or sprints represented by separate bars. The end of a bar can be a milestone, especially if it symbolizes the end of a certain phase of the project or a group of tasks completed, and means you’re ready to move on to the next phase.

Sometimes the project management software offers an insight into your milestones by simply providing a list of them, along with deadlines and the person in charge. This will look like a to-do list and will sometimes offer an option to remind you of approaching milestone target dates.


Milestone reporting

Well-set milestones are a good start, but to take full advantage of them, you need to track them properly and establish a reporting routine.

Not all stakeholders need insight into the progress of each task – for instance, your CEO may need more of an overview, while your project manager may need more detailed information.

Establishing regular milestone meetings can be one way to go about this. During these meetings, you inform your stakeholders which milestones have been reached, which are being worked on, and which are not yet on the horizon. Then you can focus on the current milestone and discuss major developments, challenges, and adjustments needed, and forecast whether the milestone will be reached on time or not.

You can also choose to simply report each time a milestone is met. This can give your colleagues an idea of the total progress of the project and provide an opportunity for celebration. And what boosts team morale more than knowing they are doing well, seeing their progress toward the end goal, and getting to celebrate their achievement? After all, any excuse for an office pizza party is great, and reaching a milestone is the perfect reason for one!

You can also choose to identify the person or people responsible for each milestone and reward them for their achievement.

This is another way to boost your employees’ morale, challenge them, and motivate them to accept responsibility for reaching the next project milestones.

Why am I not reaching my milestones? What can I do about it?

Sometimes you may feel stuck in a project, with the deadline for a milestone fast approaching, while you’re nowhere near reaching it. This can happen for various reasons, and it’s not always a failure of the team. Sometimes the issue lies with how milestones in the project are set and tracked. Let’s look at three key reasons why teams fail to reach project milestones.

Setting too many milestones

If you set a milestone for the completion of each task in a project, it may be a sign that you’re overdoing it. Not all tasks are essential for progress – sometimes you can move forward to the next phase while certain tasks are not yet completed. With wrongly set milestones, you risk waiting around unnecessarily, when you could be moving forward.

Milestones should be set at key moments. If you look at the list of milestones, it should look more like a project phase overview than a to-do list.

Treating milestones as tasks

Some teams struggle with differentiating between a milestone and a task. Milestones are single points on a timeline, and they let you know you’re making progress. Tasks are set in time and describe the work to be done.

Reaching a milestone is what you’re trying to achieve, while the task is how you’re going to do it. And these are sometimes very different things. Remember your school days? Studying for an important exam is a task, and so is taking the exam; the milestone is passing the exam because that means you’re ready to graduate.

In software development, we can apply a similar pattern: UI design, debugging back-end code, etc., are all tasks – i.e., the means to achieve the milestone, which is product release.

“Hidden” project milestones

A project timeline should definitely include milestones – otherwise, you won’t be able to track your progress well.

It’s important to make sure that whatever tool you use for project management, you’ll be able to see the list of milestones clearly and often. Things get busy, and sometimes you get so preoccupied with tracking your team’s tasks that you lose sight of the short-term goals (milestones).

To make sure you never lose sight of what you’re trying to achieve and what progress you’re making, make milestones visible on the project timeline, or however else you track your project’s progress.

Let’s get planning!

Now you can be confident that you know what good milestones look like and how to set them. Equipped with this knowledge, you can see your next project become a success (with many small wins on the way as you reach your milestones).

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