Using MS Project to Manage Project Milestones



The PMBOK® describes a milestone as a significant point or event during a project. Project milestones are also referred to as a Phase Gate, Stage Gate, Check Point, or Decision Point. In other words a milestone represents a significant point in time when a predefined segment of work has been completed, or the when a specific event has occurred.


Some examples of common project milestones include:

Recognizing Work Completed:

  • Project Baseline Complete
  • Technical Design Complete
  • Code Complete
  • System Testing Complete
  • Iteration 0 Complete
  • Sprint 1 Complete

Recognizing Events Occurred:

  • Business Case Approved
  • Software Solution Selected
  • Proof of Concept Approved
  • Software Installed
  • User Acceptance Test Approved
  • “Go Live”
  • Project Closed

A milestone may be mandatory, acknowledging compliance with external regulations or the organization’s SDLC, or optional in nature, recognizing completion of specific project work or events. In either case, managing milestones enables effectively measuring and communicating project performance throughout the project cycle — rather than waiting until the end of the project “hoping” the project is successfully delivered. I have been in more than one project briefing where a project stakeholder stated, “Shouldn’t we have known about this problem earlier in the project.” In every one of these situations, if milestones were established and managed properly, the problem would have been identified, and corrective actions implemented much earlier in the project life cycle. MS Project provides several features that enable establishing, and managing project milestones. I describe several of these features below in my 5 tips to manage project milestones.

5 Tips to Manage Project Milestones

1. Highlight key “junctures” in the project – During the process of creating the baseline project plan, milestones should be purposefully identified and inserted into the schedule. These milestones highlight compliance with SDLC requirements (e.g., stage gate approvals), completion of specific work or events (e.g., requirements complete), or connections of project work to external dependencies (e.g., approval of project deliverables by a government agency). These are all planned points in time during the project that you will measure planned vs. actual progress (time, effort, cost, and scope). For this reason you want to make sure that milestones are “sprinkled” throughout the project life cycle — milestones should be inserted every 10-20% of the overall project duration. Within MS Project a milestone is established by inserting a task with 0 days in duration (depicted with a u on the Gantt chart). I also find it helpful to highlight the project milestone with a different color text (see sample MS Project schedule below). In addition, MS Project provides filters and views that effectively communicate the project milestones.

2. Understand dependencies – Connecting predecessors to project milestones defines the work or events that must be completed to “declare victory” for that point in time during the project. In other words, dependencies are utilized to define what “done looks like” for each project milestone. In addition, dependencies attached to the milestone establish triggers for work to be initiated upon completion of the milestone (in the form of successors). Effectively planning the milestone successors helps ensure a smooth transition between phases / stages of the project. The picture below depicts using the MS Project’s Predecessor – Successor view to establish and review the dependencies tied to the project milestone.

3. Progress measured based upon milestones – Special attention is paid to project performance as it relates to project milestones. Finish variances tied to the project milestone are utilized to identify how completion of the milestone is tracking (vs. baseline plans). As variances are identified, dependent tasks / deliverables are reviewed to identify the source of the schedule related problems, and identify / implement the appropriate corrective actions. This represents an effective and efficient approach to quickly review and communicate project performance. Below is an example of tracking schedule performance associated with project milestones.

4. Change assessed based upon impact on milestones – The schedule impact associated with a project change must be assessed based upon impact on the project milestones, as well as the end of the project. Managing impacts at the project milestone level ensures that all stakeholder commitments are understood before implementing change requests (e.g., external project dependencies, scheduled events). Simulating the implementation of the project change within the project schedule provides in a very tangible manner the impact of the project change on the project milestone (see sample below).

5. Celebrating Success & Capturing Lessons Learned – It represents a best practice to celebrate success and capture lessons learned at project milestones. Milestone based celebrations energizes teams to take on the next phase of the project. As I mentioned in my blog on Project Celebrations, the celebrations should “sized” appropriately based upon the event or work completed. Capturing lessons learned at the end of a project milestone provides a couple valuable benefits:

  • It is most effective to capture lessons learned while they are “fresh” in the minds of the project team.
  • Capturing lessons learned at project milestones provides the ability to implement actions that will improve the team’s project delivery capabilities in future project phases. This approach is actively practiced in Agile projects, in the form of retrospectives performed at the end of each sprint.

Using SharePoint to Communicate Milestone Progress

While MS Project provides strong capabilities to identify and track project milestones, the project site on SharePoint can be leveraged to communicate the current status of project milestones. I utilize a custom list to create the Milestone Tracking list in SharePoint. Many stakeholders do not have access to MS Project, and the milestone list represents an easy to access and understand vehicle to consume milestone performance related information. In addition, this list can be easily incorporated into the on-demand project status report available on SharePoint.