The Hidden Purpose Of Milestones In Project Management

Milestone’s are an integral part of project management. Without milestones a project feels like the road to nowhere.

In this article we will see how we might use milestones to deliver your goals and strategic needs.
Milestones maybe defined as progress markers that are significant measurable events in the journey of a project. Some of the most common uses of milestones are;

  • Measure and monitor project progress – it is a checkpoint for schedule and budget tracking.
  • Communicate project progress to management or other stakeholders.
  • Measure and evaluate team performance.

The above are the obvious reasons but teams should also use Milestones to manage Risks and Assumptions. Risks and assumptions are silent killers of a new product development project. Startups and new products that are driven by the passion of the founders are at risk of overlooking the risks and assumptions. The “lean startup” movement started by Steve Blank is a testimonial to the importance to dealing with this early in the project. To ensure that the risks mitigated and assumptions validated as the project progresses they should be linked to milestones. The third element to link to milestones is deliverables. This is probably the most obvious of the three to understand because milestones mark progress and this is achieved by meeting project deliverables.

Thus the three pillars of effective milestone management are Risks, Assumptions and Deliverables – or in short RAD, taking the first letter of each. Use milestones to systematically address the RAD’s. At each milestone the risks should be mitigated, assumptions validated, and deliverables achieved. This can be done through appropriate tasks that lead to the milestone. RAD’s are particularly important for new product projects and startups, because they operate in high uncertainty and risk. The cost of changes is directly proportional to time i.e. changes in later stages are more expensive than early corrections, as shown in the picture below. Hence, the biggest risks and assumptions should be addressed early in the project. This can be done by doing the following steps;

  • Identifying project risks and assumptions
  • Analyze the prioritize them
  • Develop risk mitigation plans (tasks) and experiments to validate assumptions (tasks)
  • Reprioritize all tasks associated with Risks, Assumptions and Deliverables
  • Associate the tasks to milestones – starting with the largest risks and assumptions

A great way to identify the risks and assumptions is to flush them out in the business planning process. Business Model Canvas is a great tool for planning and can be used for this.

Impact of change in a product life cycle


Milestone Management

Determining Your Milestones

It is easy to confuse milestones and goals. A team is likely to have several goals. Goals and objectives are mandates for project teams to realize strategy, and hence are deliverables. A milestone can have one or more goals associated with it. In other words, it is the goals expected to be completed or delivered at that milestone. It is likely to have fewer milestones than goals. So how do you determine milestones?

Andrea Belz in the book “Product Development” says there are two types of Milestones. Journey Milestones and Destination Milestones. Journey milestones are descriptive of the team activity in a particular phase of the journey. For example; problem solution fit -> product market fit -> Business Model fit -> customer validation -> business scaling. And the destination milestones examples could be; Develop Business hypothesis -> MVP validation -> prototype test -> ship beta product -> Launch product.

Guy Kawasaki in his book, “Art of the Start” says all startups go through the following milestones:

  • Prove your concept
  • Complete design specification
  • Finish a prototype
  • Raise capital
  • Ship a testable version to customers
  • Ship the final version to customers
  • Achieve breakeven

These milestones are just examples. Every team should create milestones that are best suited for its project.

Milestones And Execution Swim Lanes

Execution can be broadly classified into four categories – planning, financing, development (product or service) and marketing. These are the building blocks of a successful execution. In the complete cycle of new product development there should be a balance of milestones in each category. However, depending on the stage of organization the focus of the team may be concentrated on a couple of building blocks. For example in the front end of new product development there will be a planning milestone, while a marketing milestone may not be there, whereas in the customer validation phase (iterating product value proposition and serving early adopters) there will be development and finance milestones.  Separating milestones into the four categories of execution is helpful because this is a forcing function to verify progress. Below is a table of potential milestones in each execution swim lane depending on the life-cycle stage of the product.

Potential Milestones by Stage of Product / Company

Building Block Discovery Stage Customer Validation Scaling / Growth Stabilizing / Maturity
Plan Business Model Validation Achieve Breakeven Operations & Quality improvements Diversify – Upsell or adjacent markets
Finance Raise Seed Funding Series B Funding Exit Strategy Acquisition
Develop Develop MVP Beta Launch New applications / versions Cost Reduction
Market Launch Social Media (Inbound Marketing) Marketing plan Establish Brand Image New markets / revenue stream

Milestone Planning Tool

There are several gantt chart and project management tools available, but these are all task managers with collaboration. New product development needs a way to keep the team daily actions focused on what is important. has developed a new product development platform to help teams connect plans to daily actions for focused execution. Milestone manager is one of several tools offered like Business Model Canvas, Risk and Requirements manager etc. All tools allow you to create linked tasks and daily activities to focus on what is important.

Milestone Swim Lanes


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