- When should we not move forward with a project?
- What are milestones for?
- What connection is there between milestones and project stages?
- How do we define milestones for our project?
- Milestone 01 – What are we going to do?
- Milestone 02 – Is it possible to achieve something similar to what we want?
- Milestone 03 – What will it be like once it is finished?
- Milestone 04 – Is this what we were looking for?
- Time to take a decision: congratulations!
- How to prepare a milestone
- Who should be there for the milestones and taking decisions?
- Who absolutely has to be there?
- Advice (from my own experience ;))
- Next time…
- Questions? Don’t be shy! I will answer all of them ✌
When should we not move forward with a project?
It seems everything is working. We have made some changes and adjusted our planning. We are going at more or less the right speed, but sometimes, when necessary, we meet up and take decisions to choose the right direction. In this lesson, I will explain one of the techniques for taking the most important project decisions: milestones or milestone meetings.
Even if everything is going well, it is necessary to see things in perspective and re-examine everything from time to time. So you know how to do it, this lesson in the free online Project Management course is going to come in very handy.
It is good to have existential crises, re-examine some things and take decisions. That is why the milestones are there – both necessary and important.
In short, a milestone is a project inspection meeting. They are typically linked to key features. That is why a milestone is often confused with an activity that is simply important to our project.
However, that does not make much sense. No activity on your critical path is more important than any other and one should not be prioritised above the others. They are all vital and your project depends equally on all of them.
Well, unlike the majority of activities in your project, milestones are the tasks that serve to assess the part of the project not associated with the result, but rather with management and, most especially, strategy.
Let us just say that the result of the project is dependent on what is decided in the milestones and not vice versa. The milestone meetings set out the bases for decision-making.
Different kinds of strategic decisions on the project are taken at the milestones. Therefore, all the activities prior to a milestone must be focused on obtaining the information necessary to take decisions at the next milestone.
This absolutely must be clarified. It is what makes milestones the Project Manager’s (PM) best tool to retain the scope and pace of projects. It is also one of the key features in the taking of important decisions.
You could say milestones are the ‘law’ and they narrow down the scope, control the speed and, most especially, reduce uncertainty in your project.
In addition, there are other progress review meetings which analyse problem-solving and decision-making. In the milestones, managerial decisions are discussed which are key to the future of the project.
What are milestones for?
To take decisions. You do not work on milestones, you assess and decide.
Milestones are an in-company decision-making process. As we have seen in previous lessons in this online Project Management course, there is a degree of uncertainty in all projects. The further we progress, the more doubts we resolve.
So, many of these doubts directly affect the project and before moving onwards, we need to decide the direction in which to go. And that is precisely why milestones exist. To compile all the necessary information and decide.
For example, let us say we are developing a new service at the company. In the first part of the project, we study feasibility and the scope of the new service. Then, we decide whether or not to move ahead and under what circumstances. And that is the very decision we have to make into a milestone.
Aside from taking decisions, milestones are the moments we decide whether or not to continue the project. So, there is a real danger of cancelling the project at each milestone. The earlier the milestone, the more uncertainty in the project and the greater the chance of cancelling it.
Every project arises out of one or more hypotheses and the milestones should focus on validating the hypothesis before carrying on.
If, for example, we are developing a product based on a new market need, then first off, we need to focus on validating it. Equally, if we want to improve a technical feature of a machine, at first, we need to look at confirming we can actually achieve this improvement.
Or if we want to set up a business, the first thing we have to do are tests to see if our business plan is viable. Later on, other matters come up, such as the profit we will get, the most useful tech, the final cost, the design, etc. These are all later milestones.
As you can see, a milestone is not just a great tool to manage uncertainty, it is also good for risk management. But we will cover that in future lessons. For now, I will just say the most important thing to understand about a milestone is to know that you do not work on the milestone. You decide and to do so, you need to have put the work in before.
What connection is there between milestones and project stages?
If you do it well, you can manage the whole project just thinking about meeting the milestones, instead of the end result.
As a Project Manager (PM), you should forget the content of a project and focus on achieving its milestones. I know this sounds a little strange, so I will try to explain the best way possible.
All project activities should be focused on sorting out the next milestone. Then the PM can formalise all the work to reach the next milestone in time with all the information necessary. That means that all the activities prior to a milestone have a goal in common, so they belong to the same stage: research, draft, design, development, production, implementation, etc.
Furthermore, classifying the stages this way helps us to understand the goal, manage the work, classify activities and optimise resources. In short, to focus all efforts on being more productive. But don’t forget: the milestones define the stages and not vice versa.
How do we define milestones for our project?
Defining project milestones is relatively easy. To do so, you have to identify the two or three major questions you need to know before completing the project.
However, it is possible that, as everything is based around a hypothesis, we will come across information at a milestone that we were not expecting to find. That is why, quite often, the project can hit a brick wall. In that case, we have to rethink the whole thing or spin what we thought we were going to do.
On top of that, the milestones must be accompanied by a review of the coming plans, team and anticipated resources for our project.
In any case, no matter what, a milestone must always be a reason for a celebration because three good significant consequences can arise from a milestone.
— We realise we can carry on and we are on the right path.
— We see that we need to rethink certain important aspects.
— We recognise that we were wrong and it needs to be cancelled before it is too late.
In my experience, there are never more than four big questions, so you do not need more than three stages. The problem is each milestone requires preparation and, also, focuses activities in the preceding stage. That is why I recommend you not to create many milestones so the project remains super agile.
These are the four questions I have asked in almost all the companies where I have worked. The milestones can be settled with the same four questions.
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Milestone 01 – What are we going to do?
This first milestone concludes with a research stage and is held to signify the official start of the project. Here, we let the whole team know the objectives and strategies involved in the project.
If you have read the first lesson of this free Project Management course, you will know we are talking about the Kick Off meeting. Everything done before this milestone must be focused on having this meeting.
Once you finish, evaluate if you have the information necessary to begin. If the whole team agrees – normally implicit – you can start. Here is your first milestone decision: Do I have all the necessary information to start?
Milestone 02 – Is it possible to achieve something similar to what we want?
This milestone marks the end of the draft stage, in which we should focus on showing whether, with our resources and knowledge, we can pursue at all levels what is proposed in the project.
This typically requires some kind of theoretical or practical draft, which tends to end up with a model, functioning prototype, market study, pilot, etc. The instrument that shows it is viable implements your initial hypothesis.
When you have the milestone, you should consider whether, with the current information and resources available, you can achieve the project goals without a shadow of a doubt.
Milestone 03 – What will it be like once it is finished?
This milestone brings the design stage to an end. Here you have already shown what you want to do is viable. Well done!
Now you need to focus on defining the specifications of the end result, as well as those of how to achieve it, and beginning to work on the end result – covering every detail.
Having reached this point, you need to know for certain what you are going to do and how.
Milestone 04 – Is this what we were looking for?
In the final part of the project, you should focus on achieving your end result. On bringing the project home so as to deliver the end result. In fact, you will not have the result until milestone 04.
Depending on the size of the team, at times we can have a further meeting to close everything up. However, I do not consider that to be a project milestone given that it is really a good business practice that I would recommend.
Time to take a decision: congratulations!
All of these stages are highly theoretical and you might be thinking they are not for your project. But remember that many projects do not need the four milestones. Also, it is not the same to build something from zero as it is to improve something that already exists, or redoing something that has already been done, or overhauling a project.
In most of these cases, not all the milestones need to be done ‘officially’. The four questions apply to complex cases which start from zero.
In fact, in many projects you might go from one milestone to the next in a matter of days or even hours. The thing is, we already have the answer to some of these questions. Albeit, it is more likely that you have to consider them one way or another.
How to prepare a milestone
A milestone is prepared throughout the preceding stage. In fact, all of the activities at each stage should be focused on the next milestone. That is why it is so important for each milestone to bring together all the dimensions of a project. This is the only way to take key decisions.
If our project has a technical side, user experience, financial, marketing, usability, research, legal, etc., then each milestone should pose the same question across the project and be answered in the same meeting. It is better like this because this way we can see the implications of each decision.
As I wrote in my article on project behaviour, all parts of the project interact and behave based on the theory of systems. So, it is necessary to evaluate all spheres of the project in parallel.
Las personas que tienen capacidad para decidir, deben entender las implicaciones de todos los otros aspectos del proyecto. Y hay muchas cosas a tratar…
The people with the capacity to decide must be aware of the implications of each and every aspect of the project. And there are many things to cover…
Therefore, when you define a milestone, you should spend time working to prepare it beforehand. Set a week or two aside so everyone can get together, prepare and complete all the necessary information.
Then, take a day or two preparing the Kick Off meeting. It is worth it.
It is important to have good, highly visual presentations with the minimum information required to take decisions. The decision makers need to come with all the cards on the table.
Naturally, they will have questions which will require time to be answered. At least 20 per cent of the meeting time.
Do not go into detail, just talk about results and problems raised in terms of the future. If parallel issues come up which go off topic, use your natural charm to redirect the meeting – brusquely if required. This will help to convey a sense of urgency.
I would even recommend you use these preparatory days as ‘Buffer’ activities – as discussed in the previous lesson of this online course. These can absorb certain delays in planning.
See how I mark an activity as a milestone in this project
Who should be there for the milestones and taking decisions?
The answer is easy. Although group decision making is highly advisable, for a milestone only the real decision makers should be present. As I have said before, a milestone is not about doing things but rather about explaining and deciding. This means that people who neither explain nor decide are indispensable for the milestone meetings. The last thing you want is to have more people than necessary taking decisions and giving opinions.
It is my belief that the heads of each department/section or business area involved in the project should be there, but no-one else from the team. What is more, they should not even really decide. The truth is those who really have the final say on seriously important matters such as viability or not continuing with the project are those to whom the project belongs and senior management at the company. These are the people who should be taking the strategic decisions.
You can invite an expert along to explain important/critical issues. However, I think you should not take this any further. I feel that each additional expert sets the meeting back. In addition, as the person in charge, you should know all the critical information. However, on occasion issues may arise affecting other managers and then only the expert can deal with them.
In fact, in some of the companies where I have worked, I have been called into a milestone meeting to explain a part of the project and settle some complex questions, before being forgotten about for the rest of the meeting.
Who absolutely has to be there?
The project owners. In other words, the people who have requested the project. These tend to be top management at the company or in the department. It is possible they are not working on it, but they have to take the strategic decision to make it happen.
At a company level, they are responsible for the project and, usually, the ones who really control the ‘dough’. That is why they must be there.
They are the only people who can decide whether to cancel or continue. If they cannot be there, ensure they have a representative there with decision-making powers. We do not want to hear the typical: ‘I’ll tell X all of this and see what s/he says’. That just means you have wasted your time.
That brings us to the end on milestones. Remember: do not underestimate them. I hope this has been interesting for you. Next time, we are going to talk about how to manage communications in your project. This is a VITAL part of teamwork, so I would recommend not skipping it.
But before that… and as I have done in previous lessons, here is some advice that I am sure will help you when it comes time to define and posit the milestones for your project.
Advice (from my own experience ;))
— Make sure you have your homework done and have all the material for everyone ready for the same presentation. You do not want to depend on others to ensure there are no technical, content, permit, etc. problems.
— When you plan, ensure there is no other activity from the same stage happening at the same time as the milestone. Otherwise, it will not make sense. When a milestone is held, the rest of the team must either be moving onto the next stage, working on another project or be on holiday.
— Start the meeting where you finished off last time. It is good to remind everyone what was done on the previous occasion. There may be new people present and, in any case, it is always good to review to provide context.
— Not everyone needs to be there in person. Nowadays, this is almost impossible, but I would recommend that there is at least one tool which can share a desktop or visual information. It is vital to have everyone seeing and focused on the same material or management application.
— Make the milestones short. You should not need more than two hours to tell everyone what you have done during the latest stage and to decide. I have been present for many never-ending milestones where some of the attendees started working on other things on their computers while awaiting their turn. I do not want this to happen to you, but if it does do not worry, it has happened to all of us 😉
— Take minutes or choose someone (a non-vocal participant) to write a summary or the minutes of what is being said. Sometimes the decisions are very important and you want a record in case someone is a little forgetful or was working on their computer when something was decided.
Remember to send the minutes out as soon as they are ready. But do not give them a date by which to review the minutes. Instead, say that if nobody wishes to change anything in the coming ‘X’ days, they will be taken as read. Otherwise, you will spend a lifetime waiting and, as the PM, you are the person who needs to set the pace of work.
— If things do not seem clear or you think information is missing, lay down guidelines on how things are to be decided. Dovetailing agendas is not required. Give yourself a few days to obtain the information. Then, send the possible decisions and their consequences for the project.
This means that the people taking the final decision can understand the consequences and vote by e-mail. The last thing you want is to lose momentum. Naturally, all of this is going on while the project continues (if that is possible).
How to use communication to control the pace of your project the project manager must ensure everyone has access to the information they need so work proceeds at top speed.
In addition, I will tell you how to use open communications to connection with the team. I will give you a list of applications that we use at Sinnaps for our internal communication.
Questions? Don’t be shy! I will answer all of them ✌
And that’s the end of this lesson. I will update it with your feedback, so don’t hesitate send comments or contributions from your experience so other users can have their doubts dispelled.
By the way… You do not need to be a user to follow the course, but I would encourage you to try the Business account in the Sinnaps app to make your work both more productive and more effective. You will see that you can work faster and better. Use the remaining time for what you most enjoy doing!
See you next time!
Richard de Sinnaps – Lets get things done!!
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