If you're reading this, you know all too well that projects are full of unexpected problems.

Bottlenecks happen. Resources suddenly get stretched thin. And without project milestones in place, stakeholders climb an unending mountain toward project completion.

That sounds extremely tiresome. But even for many successful project managers, this happens all the time. Even if you’re familiar with project milestones, you might not realize their immense value for your project, teammates, and most importantly, your clients.

In this guide, you’ll learn everything about project milestones and why they matter to project managers and stakeholders. We'll also provide a few tips to keep your projects afloat and on time.

Let’s dive in and see how project milestones can help you to cope with the demanding and dynamic project management landscape.

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Add detail to your projects with Tasks

Break down projects to a granular level using Teamwork’s flexible task management capabilities. Assign work, add due dates, set priorities, and tag your team or clients directly within comments.

What are project milestones?

Project milestones are simply checkpoints along the project timeline that show any significant progress toward the overall goal. As a project manager or stakeholder, you set the milestones within the project at key points to ensure everyone knows what is expected and by when.

According to the Project Management Institute, there are five distinct phases in a project life cycle:

  1. Initiation

  2. Planning

  3. Execution

  4. Monitoring and Controlling

  5. Closure

project stages teamwork image

Each of these phases will act as your foundational milestones. Depending on the project, you may have more milestones within each phase. This can include things like essential meetings, review periods, mid-project deliverables, or soft launches.

That said, we need to talk about what milestones are not.

Milestones shouldn’t be confused with project tasks or goals. Tasks are activities that take time and other resources. And goals determine the overall direction of the project. Milestones are simply the signposts that say, you’ve come this far.

Why project milestones are useful for clients

The demands on agencies have changed and expectations are that much higher with the increased competition. This means your project workflows can get complex in a heartbeat and new changes come before you’ve adjusted to the last. 

In fact, a KPMG survey found 67% of project managers believe projects have grown much more complicated over the last decade. But project milestones can help you manage these changes, keeping your projects on track even when things are in flux. 

For example, let's compare project milestones with a client to a road trip with friends. On the way, you pass signs that mark your progress like entering a new state or miles to a rest stop. Those signs represent the foundational milestones throughout your trip – much like the project phases.

They’re on the road every time you go. They don’t demand action. These milestones tell you how far you’ve come and how far you still have to go.

Your project milestones are just like those road signs. They give you and your client a clear indication of how far you've come. These milestones also confirm (and give your client reassurance) that you’re headed in the right direction.

Project milestones help your team recalibrate

Checkpoints allow you to catch problems while they're still manageable. And they give you a chance to prepare for the demands of the next phase of the trip.

Just like your road trip, projects are easier to navigate when you set important signs to mark your progress. However, the road that winds through your project plan will change as you move forward and your ability to adjust is critical.

How critical?

PMI project failure reasons

The PMI Pulse of the Profession Report found the top reason projects fail is when there are no clear project milestones in place. That said, there’s no set path to follow. Only your best guess, navigated by an adaptive team. 

Your project milestones keep you in check and in sync, so you’re learning and growing with the project as it matures. So, how do you do that? Here are three ways to best use project milestones:

1. Ensure project milestones are easy to manage and understand

Project rollout tends to be a monster of a task. Big or small, a project has many moving parts that, when unchecked, can derail even the best of plans. Good milestone planning breaks a project up into manageable chunks, so you don’t have to handle everything at once.

Good milestones also set a rhythm for the project and are not too complex for clients to understand. Milestones should be close enough together that your team can sense the next one around the corner, but appropriately apart so they don’t become too routine.

Even though it can be different for each project, there should be common points to mark your progress within the project. With Teamwork, it's easy to set one or many project milestones within your overall project.

milestone tracker in teamwork

Whether you want to notify specific users of the milestone, set reminders for due dates, add descriptions, or invite new users, Teamwork has you covered. It's simple to space out milestones and get a holistic view of them in the calendar view.

This provides you and your clients with a much clearer picture of what to expect. Did we mention that with Teamwork, all your clients can get a seat for free?

Milestones should provide clarity

With milestones in place, the project’s life cycle is easy to understand and easy to communicate. It’s vital that you and your team know at all times where you are in the project life cycle.

Sometimes tasks stretch and overlap, and this can interfere with other parts of the project. The next thing you know, clients and team members are unsure what comes next.

In fact, a recent Gallup survey found 60% of employees believe their workplace expectations aren't that clear. That’s where milestones come in handy.

Milestones eliminate confusion about exactly where the project is in its life cycle. Not only do milestones keep people on track, but they also help with communication.

PMI 2018 Report most common project issues

The same PMI report mentioned earlier found 29% of projects go off the rails due to poor communication. But with milestones, you provide your team and clients with a natural check-in point.

This allows everyone to stop, share what they know, and get on the same page.

Milestones help to identify scope creep

With regular opportunities to stop and check your status, your team can keep an eye on scope creep to catch it before it blows up. 52% of all projects experience scope creep — and you already know what a project killer that can be.

Scope creep can come from just about anywhere: objectives get bumped around, financial requirements change (usually by growing bigger), and sometimes there’s even a shift in overall company priorities:

  • 39% of project failures cite a change in organizational priorities as the cause.

  • 37% of projects failed after a shift in the project objectives.

  • 29% failed as a result of an inadequate vision or goal.

Milestones help keep these problems within view. Each milestone is a checkpoint where the team can have a look around, assess how well things are going so far, and determine what changes are needed to keep things running smoothly.

2. Use project milestones as a way to motivate

The human factor is a project manager's biggest challenge when working through a project. Everybody involved, from the client to each individual member, is a human being with human limitations. 

This is the source of your team’s creativity, but it’s also the source of some particularly tricky issues. A FlexJobs report found 76% of employees deal with workplace stress and 42% of those say their stress levels are significantly up.

Of course, some tasks are more taxing than others, but even the most exhilarating tasks can overheat your crew and nosedive your efficiency. Breaking the project into digestible pieces lightens this load for you and your team members.

milestones calendar tab view in teamwork

It also creates a realistic approach to getting more work done when you can visually see the milestones within a calendar view.

Milestones should promote focus

It’s easier to stay focused on the task at hand when you’re not worrying about the entire journey ahead. A project is a marathon, and project milestones split that marathon into small sprints. 

Between each of these sprints is a moment for everybody to reconnect and resynchronize. That’s where project milestones come in. They give your team a chance to start fresh with each new milestone.

Rather than grinding through task after task without any significant checkpoints, milestones break the routine and change the focus.

Upcoming, late, and completed milestones in teamwork view

And with Teamwork, the Milestones tab view allows stakeholders or clients to see existing, late, or finished milestones.

3. Create project milestones that work for everyone

One of the benefits of project milestones is the transparency they bring to your project. Not only do they keep your team and clients in sync, but they also provide a clear window into your project status. 

Transparency can give your client more than just a status update. It gives them the insight to be able to talk intelligently about the project and its progress.

5 tips for fostering collaboration with your clients

5 tips for fostering collaboration with your clients

Download our guide to get essential communication tips and insights into how to foster collaboration with your clients.

Let’s say the client requests some changes along the way. That can easily affect the milestones throughout the rest of the project. You need to be able to discuss this kind of ripple effect without poring over every detail.

When the client is already familiar with the project milestones, it makes it easier to discuss how their request would affect the road ahead. Milestones give you succinct reference points that you both understand.

Clients don’t make unreasonable requests on purpose. But if they do, milestones provide the big picture view so you can come to a mutual understanding without derailing any work.

Your accountability cultivates trust

Don’t forget that the client has invested more than just their trust in you – they invested cold hard cash too. They’re paying you for the promise of a valuable result and they need to know that their investment isn’t circling the drain.

In fact, data shows projects don't make it across the finish line because of inaccurate cost estimates (28%) and time estimates (25%). Don't let money be the reason for project failure.

By giving clients access to view the progress of your project milestones, they feel more in control. Getting a bird's-eye view helps clients rest assured that their investment is being put to good use.

Milestone Report Animation

The Teamwork Planned vs. Actual Milestone report gives clients the perfect view into what was promised and what was delivered. This makes it so much easier to have those tough calls with clients when they request new projects to your workload.

Now, everyone can see what was planned, how it's pacing, and what needs to be done. Reports like this help keep all parties accountable and track.

Reach your project milestones with more ease

The great part about project work is that there is always room to grow and improve. For quick improvements, though, look no further than your project milestones.

Milestones help you frame your projects, anchoring your efforts and keeping your project between the lines.

Of course, that’s going to help you achieve greater results, even from big, complex projects. And that’s going to make you the go-to solution for your clients.