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Project Milestones

2. What is a Project Milestone?

A milestone is a significant, marked progress point that appears along a project timeline. Generally milestones signify an important change or step in the development of a project. Milestones divide timelines into stages and are commonly found in project management software such as Xero’s WorkflowMax. 

Milestones are usually set in the planning phase of a project  and get updated as the project progresses. Think of milestones as stop and go sign posts. They are visual reference points that break a project down into manageable chunks, create order and help to anchor the project and make it less overwhelming.

All project managers need to keep track of major events and pending decisions. Setting milestones can help to do this. Milestones signal to everyone involved what the overall ‘lifespan’ of a project looks like and what needs to be achieved along the way.

Some examples of typical milestones include:

  • Start and end dates
  • Budget checks
  • External or internal reviews
  • Tests or inspections

Without milestones, project managers end up only monitoring a multitude of individual tasks. The completion of tasks is clearly important, but a bigger picture is required to keep projects on track to ensure successful, timely completion and to make certain all deliverables are met. 

project milestones people talking

What do Milestones look like?

Milestones do more than just indicate project progress—they also help to communicate what’s happening in a simple, but highly effective way. They are usually indicated with a diamond or triangle symbol, like in the timeline below. Here you can clearly see the way milestones work in project planning. They function as flags signalling critical events or dates.

project milestones chart 2

How to identify a Project Milestone?

Milestones are different to project tasks or deliverables. They sit higher in the order of project planning and tend to be more general. For example, ‘mid-point review with client’ is a typical milestone. This general marker then branches out into smaller, more detailed lists of associated tasks and deliverables such as ‘Emma to prepare review presentation.’ The most critical events in your project need to be milestones. These important ‘events’ should be clearly set out and easily viewed by project managers and their teams.

Another way to identify key milestones is to think of them in the context of action and forward momentum. Which actions are vital to the project before the next step is possible? Look for the critical actions that play a pivotal role in keeping the project moving and set these down as guiding milestones.

But setting milestones can be difficult. As we have identified, deliverables and tasks are often mistaken for milestones. Here are some questions to ask before setting milestones down:

Q Is this a task or a deliverable?

A If you’ve said yes to either of these it’s not a milestone.

Q Will this impact the final deadline?

A If you’ve said yes to this question, chances are you’ve got a milestone.

Q Is this an important moment in the project that will indicate forward progress?

A If you’ve answered yes to this question, yes you’ve hit a milestone!

Q Is this an event that impacts the project?

A Again, if you’ve answered yes to this question, you’ve hit another milestone.

Really thinking through the questions and answers above will help you to determine if something should be a deliverable, a task or a milestone.

What is a project deliverable? How are they different to milestones?

Milestones and deliverables are often confused. Despite their differences, it is most most likely down to the fact that milestones and deliverables are mutually dependant on one another. For further clarity, here is a detailed comparison between deliverables and milestones.


  • A deliverable is an outcome or object that a project team must create and deliver according to terms of an agreement.
  • A deliverable can be an interim result that contributes to the completion of the entire project, such as the creation of help desk tickets for a help desk implementation project.
  • A deliverable can also be the final result of the project, such as the operational help desk.

There are two types of deliverables:

  1. Intangible deliverable - this is a particular outcome that a team achieves, such as an increase in a company's accounts receivable turnover ratio.
  2. Tangible deliverable - this is a concrete or material object created by a team, such as a report, a custom software component or a computer.

Milestone Recap:

Remember, milestones are checkpoints throughout the life of the project. They identify when one or multiple groups of activities have been completed signalling that a critical point has been reached in the project.

Milestones represent the completion of a major stage in a project that requires the commitment of a certain amount of time, resources and effort. Deliverables indicate the quantifiable item that was created during this commitment of time, resource and effort.

What is a project Task? How is it different to a milestone?

A task is a single unit of work. It is the essential action required to accomplish something in a project. Think of tasks as single steps in a multi-step project. A task is accomplished by a set deadline, and must contribute toward work-related objectives. The completion of tasks generally requires the coordination of others and the utilization of milestones.

project milestones planning

What is a Project Milestone chart?

Milestone charts are frequently used in project management. They are commonly thought to be the same as Gantt charts because they both depict milestones symbolised by a diamond shape along a timescale graphically. However, a milestone chart depicts an overview of milestones on a timeline whereas a Gantt chart further breaks milestones down into their associated tasks and core deliverables.project milestone chart

Milestone charts are used to visually display and organise complex projects. Charts, are helpful for project planning and management because they assist with project scheduling.

There are many types of charts, each with their own style and features. Visual charts are an effective way of depicting the work breakdown structure of a project and tracking progress. These charts help project managers and their teams to keep an eye on the various activities and phases of a project. 

Helpful links to milestone chart templates



How to track milestones

Project managers need to not only set milestones, but also track them. Milestone tracking happens when forecast dates are compared with actual committed dates. Once a project plan has been thoroughly laid down, a snapshot should be taken, so that actual project performance has a yardstick for comparison.

A project will only be successful if client and stakeholder expectations have been fully met. These are typically expressed in terms of:

  • Deliverables
  • Quality of deliverables
  • Costs incurred
  • Timescale

Milestone tracking is the most effective way of managing these areas. The use of timesheets are a logical way of gathering quantifiable information to measure actual performance. Weekly timesheets can provide early warnings when actual productivity falls below what it should be. This allows project managers to understand the likely impact this may have on milestone dates and to take corrective action.

project milestones two people planning

Why are Milestones important?

Milestones are critical to successful project management for the following reasons:

  1. They help to monitor deadlines - setting core milestones in the planning phase of a project will help project managers to stay on top of all associated deadlines.
  2. Identify potential bottlenecks - many projects rely on work produced by external teams or partners. If these external factors aren't being tracked delays and compression are likely.
  3. Easily spot critical dates - using milestones makes it easier to see the bigger picture and readily spot important dates and events. Perhaps you or your entire team will need to be out of the office for a mandatory training session related to the project.
  4. Raises the visibility of the project - visibility can make things easier when it comes to project handling. Everyone can see where a project is and what remains to be done.
  5. Time and resource allocation - time and resource is critical to the completion of all successful projects. Using milestones helps managers to distribute resources effectively so that projects are delivered on time and on budget.
  6. Payments to vendors are often based on milestone completion - keep track and time payments to key suppliers with the completion of milestones.
  7. Stakeholder involvement varies between milestones - stakeholders typically become more involved as a milestone is approached. Use milestones to plan for when stakeholders should step closer to the project.
  8. Accountability - project teams need to see what they are responsible for. Milestones help everyone to be accountable for the part they play.
  9. Demonstrates ‘measures of success’ - it's great to be able to measure your success! Completing and passing through all your major milestones is a satisfying, visible way to demonstrate the overall success of a project.
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Managing Project Milestones
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