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Shannon Toe

How to Create a Milestone Chart / Schedule — A 9-Minute Guide

Creating a milestone chart can be quick and simple if you have the right tools on the table. Here's how to do it in 7 simple steps.

Creating a milestone chart is like planning a vacation — you need to pull all the factors together — who you’re going with, what you want to do or achieve, and, most importantly, how much it is going to cost you.

Above anything else, milestone gantt  charts give you a way to put all the data on paper (read:  screen), see what’s missing, and where you can actually get with your existing resources. It is a way to get a realistic estimate of just how feasible the project is and what you can expect out of it.

But although milestone charts can sound easy, creating one can get tricky, especially when you get to see all the dependencies and limitations that come into play along the way.

For you to get an easy start with project milestone charts, we have created this easy 9-minute guide.

What is a milestone in project management?

Milestones are significant events or moments in time. 

Think about your life - what you’ve achieved so far and what you hope to achieve. Your mental milestones might include:

  • Studying and graduating
  • Moving into your own home
  • Landing your first job or promotion
  • Meeting or marrying a significant other
  • Ticking travel destinations off your bucket list

Rightly or wrongly, you probably reflect on these milestones and use them to measure your progress against where you expect to be in life. (Psst! Don’t stress. You’re doing fine!)

The same applies to project management. Project milestones are the achievements that show how you’re progressing towards your overall goal. They help keep you on track - or make changes if you’re not.

A milestone in project management might include the completion of a critical phase. Or delivery of a…well, deliverable. 

Incontestably, milestones are an integral part of project management. They're the checkpoints along a project's timeline where the team takes a moment to assess the progress so far, re-evaluate the work left to be done, and determine whether to adjust the strategy or just keep going.

A milestone is an important point of reference in your project, such as reaching the halfway point, or completing a deliverable. Milestones can also help you and other stakeholders track progress, plan for potential changes in project scheduling and budget, and prepare for upcoming events.

Characteristics of a project milestone

Milestones are usually:

  • Significant - Not every activity or date is a milestone. Milestones are the headline news - things that have a significant impact on project progress or success. The stuff people need to know.
  • Specific to a particular time - Milestones are time-bound. You know when they need to happen, within your project timeline, to stay on track
  • Measurable - You need to be able to measure whether the milestone has been achieved - whether that’s meeting a deadline or achieving a tangible outcome.
  • Decision-time - Milestones are often a time to take stock, make changes, or make decisions - for example, if you’re getting too close to your max budget.

What is a milestone chart?

A milestone chart (or "milestone schedule" or "milestone diagram") is a visual way of showing the milestones in your project. It's an easy-to-understand tool that people who aren't familiar with your project can use to see how long each phase will last and where they fit into the bigger picture. Plus, it helps you plan ahead by alerting you about upcoming milestones so you can be ready for them.

milestone chart

Milestone charts are used in project management to make sure that the project is moving along according to plan. They take the form of a timeline divided into phases, and they help to identify when a specific task will be completed or when a certain deliverable will be met. Milestone charts can be useful for identifying where a project is falling behind schedule, and for planning ahead in case there is an emergency or an unexpected setback. 

These charts are a time-honored tool in project management, as they're a great way to keep your team aware of the big picture and on-track for project completion.

Why is a milestone chart important in project management?

Milestone charts are used in project management to make sure that the project is moving along according to plan. They’re a time-honored tool in project management, as they're a great way to keep your team aware of the big picture and on-track for project completion. 

They’re useful for identifying where a project is falling behind schedule, and for planning ahead in case there is an emergency or an unexpected setback. 

For team members and project stakeholders, it's an easy-to-understand tool that people who aren't familiar with your project. They can use it to see how long each phase will last and where they fit into the bigger picture. 

For project managers, it is a way to be prepared and organized. Plus, it helps you plan ahead by alerting you about upcoming milestones so you can be ready for them.

Here’s why your next project could benefit from a milestone chart.

  • They keep you on schedule - A milestone chart helps you monitor progress and schedule adherence throughout the project. If you start to fall behind, you’ll realise straight away, thanks to regular checkpoints. It also helps protect against scope creep, because your deliverables and timelines are clearly documented for all to see.
  • They keep stakeholders informed - As an intuitive visual overview, a milestone chart makes it easy for all project stakeholders to understand what’s happening, when, and whether it’s on track.
  • They make big projects more manageable - A milestone chart forces you to break your project down into logical, sequential, managable chunks. This makes it easier to monitor and manage big endeavors. 
  • They keep your team motivated - Regular, attainable milestones helps keep people motivated. Manageable work phases and regular deadlines helps people maintain focus and lets you regularly reflect and celebrate success. 
  • They identify risk in advance - From dependant tasks that could overrun to resource-constrained scheduling, a milestone chart helps you proactively spot and manage risk.

Milestone chart example

There’s a multitude of situations where a milestone chart is useful but in project management, it is crucial for success — for one thing, it helps keep things neat and organized. And if you’re working in the professional services industry, here’s a typical situation where a milestone chart could make a world of difference not only for the project manager, but for all the stakeholders involved.

Suppose you have built a tool or software for some client. It has been a while since it launched and now it is high time that you roll out a new version of it. Now, this is not the kind of project that takes a day — in fact, it can even take months, depending on how many adjustments you need to make.

But where do you start?

A milestone chart will give you a timeline to work with. Your first milestone, for example, could be at the point where all the stakeholders agree on what updates need to be made and what features added. Your second milestone could mark the point where some of those features get developed — and so on and so forth. 

Where is the finish line then? Or rather the last milestone in the chart? Correct, it’s at the point of the roll-out. 

Here’s what such a milestone chart template could look like in Runn. 

milestone chart example

Components of a milestone chart

A milestone chart typically includes the following elements.

  • Project timeline - A (usually) horizontal axis showing dates in chronological order - so you can visualize how the project will flow over the coming weeks or months
  • Phases - Discrete elements of a project that help make planning and execution easier - for example, planning phase, design phase etc.
  • Milestones - Significant checkpoints in the project - these should include due date, status (completed, pending, overdue), and symbols to make it clear what type of milestone it is (see below)
  • Durations - A visual indication of how long specific tasks or milestones are expected to take
  • Tasks and dependencies - Key tasks - with arrows or lines that show the order in which dependant tasks need to be completed
  • Critical path - The longest sequence of dependent tasks that determines the minimum time a project can take
  • Assignees - Who’s responsible for the various tasks
  • Background info - Depending on which type of chart you choose - and how you present it - you may include background information on each milestone

Combine these elements and you’ll have a highly visual, at-a-glance overview of your project - so everyone knows what’s happening and when.  

Types of milestones

There are 5 symbols you can choose from in Runn to identify your different types of milestones.

You can identify your milestones however you wish. Here are some examples:

The $ symbol

Identify financial deadlines, for example:

  • Payment due
  • Invoice sent to client

The Warning symbol

Identify warnings or events that may impact your project, for example:

  • Scheduled website maintenance
  • 50% of budgeted hours used up

The Start arrow symbol

Identify the beginning of a phase or stage in the project, for example:

  • Project commences
  • Phase begins

The End arrow symbol

Identify the end of a phase or stage in the project, for example:

  • Project completed
  • Phase ends

The Flag symbol

Identify key events or deliverables, for example:

  • Project budget approved
  • Report prepared for project sponsor

How to create a milestone chart (7 easy steps)

Milestone charts come in many shapes and sizes. You can make a milestone Gantt chart, timeline milestone charts, etc. We’ve listed key types of milestone charts - and their relative pros and cons - below. Be aware of different styles and select the one that makes most sense to you.

Next, think about how you’ll create and update the chart. Will you go old school and use Excel? Or will you use a dedicated tool that automates the process for ease of creation and maintenance?  

Excel benefits from being free but it’s also fiddly. Milestone charts need to be regularly updated - not many things are static in project management and success is about being dynamic - and this means that Excel is a little lacking here. It takes a lot of manual work to update it - which wastes time and introduces the risk of human error.  

You can remove all that project milestone chart hassle by automating the process using a fit-for-purpose tool - like the milestone chart functionality built into Runn. Then all the project planning and tracking will be a matter of a few clicks. 

Whichever you choose, here’s what you need to do next.

1. Identify goals

Start with a brainstorming session about what you need to accomplish as a team or as a company. If it's an existing product or service, list out any complaints you've heard from customers or clients that you want to fix. If it's an entirely new product or service, double-check if the problem you're solving is actually a problem people have. Make sure that the goals are quantifiable and don't rely on subjective opinions — "make it better" isn't something you can measure. 

Begin with the end in mind: it's important to know what you want to accomplish before you start planning how to get there. What do you want your milestone chart to look like at the end? What do you think are some key milestones that need to be hit along the way? Discuss these questions with the team members involved and make sure everyone's on board with setting up the chart in a way that will achieve those goals.

2. Line up tasks

Now that you know where you're headed, it's time to decide what needs to happen to get there. Break down each goal into smaller steps and set specific dates for each one — this part is key, and will be your guide as you move forward with the project.

​​Think about the most efficient way for each task to be completed, and write down each step necessary for that part of the project, including when it needs to be completed in relation to other steps. 

3. Make a timeline and set milestones

This is the part where it really gets interesting. 

Here you get to lay all of your milestones on an axis and create a timeline. Visualizing all the project plans and using the right project scheduling techniques is the way you need to take for your planning to be realistic. Above all, a milestone chart in project management has to be accurate and specific — so try to leave as little wiggle room as possible (or none at all) when it comes to milestone delivery dates. 

With Runn’s Project Planner, you can simply drag a bar to make the project phase or milestone as long as you need it to be to cover all tasks. 

how to create a milestone chart

4. Assign people

Once you have the backbone of the project laid out, start assigning resources to it. You usually start by looking into your internal resource pool, their availability and capacity to understand whether your current resources can cover all the project needs or whether you need to do some hiring to meet project demand. 

But just so you don’t have to stop that milestone chart planning dead in its tracks, create Placeholders to see what resources you need and where, even if you don’t have them yet. 

With a Placeholder, you can assign a role to a milestone or a task (instead of a specific person), which will help you see what expertise you will need and for how many hours on that specific project. That is actually the best way to make your hiring accurate and relevant. 

Assigning people is the most crucial part of the process so make sure everyone knows who they're accountable to, what their deadlines are, and how they can get in touch if they have any questions or issues.

5. Gather feedback

Before the project is on, every stakeholder needs to agree with the trajectory you chose for it to take. You need to be sure that your resources have the right skillset, expertise, and even motivation to participate in the project you launch. Once that is confirmed, you can gather feedback on how feasible your milestone chart is and whether all the goals can actually be achieved. 

6. Provide relevant documentation

Behind every successful project stands a good amount of documentation work. 

From project proposal and project plan to risk management plan and project scope statement — throughout your project lifecycle, there will be a lot of relevant documents you need to keep in one place for the project to be well-organized. 

7. Check off achieved milestones

Celebrate successes.

Each milestone achieved is a reason to celebrate all the efforts your team has put into the project and provide all stakeholders with a relevant report on how the project is going. 

Achieved milestones give a sense of completion so celebrating them is a way of rewarding the team for getting the project closer to the finish line. 

Now, let’s go back to another exciting question: how many chart types are there and which one is the best for your specific project?

Milestone chart alternatives

Whatever milestone chart type you’re going to choose, its concept will remain the same — showing project phases and progress. However, the way you visualize your milestone chart comes with a few options. 

milestone chart alternatives

Gantt chart

Even when someone is new to project management, Gantt chart is something they probably already know. It is usually this color-coded timeline chart with bars for project phases. 

In fact, most project scheduling tools use Gantt charts as a way to visualize milestone charts. They are usually drag-and-drop and can show you dependencies between different milestones and tasks. 

When to choose: Ideal for complex projects with multiple dependencies, as they can present granular detail in an easy-to-understand way.

Horizontal timeline 

This timeline usually comes naturally — it is the easiest to read. It’s a horizontal axis with milestones placed chronologically on it. This milestone chart is often used in product roadmaps to clearly see the delivery date of each feature. 

When to choose: Best for projects with a clear chronological sequence. In Western cultures, we’re used to reading left-to-right and this approach is often the most intuitive to follow.

Vertical timeline

Vertical timeline is like a sibling to the horizontal timeline — it’s just doing things the other way around, going top to bottom instead of left to right. The chronology approach, however, remains in place. 

When to choose: When your project has a clear chronological sequence and your preference is for this style of timeline. For example, to fit into a specific format of report for a client.

Kanban board

These boards are so universal that they are not only used for task management, but for project scheduling too. With each column, you get a meaningful piece like a milestone or a certain time frame. Using that logical construct, you can easily see all the relevant information and status of each milestone. 

When to choose: Kanban boards let you move different tasks around easily but aren’t as good as showing a sequence of tasks at-a-glance. Useful for Agile projects with flexible needs. Great if you want to include background info for stakeholders.

Milestone visualization

Milestone visualization is very similar to a horizontal timeline but it can provide more background on each milestone. 

Creating a milestone chart can be quick and simple if you have the right tools on the table. With Runn’s Project Planner, you can build your project and milestone chart in such a way that you will always remain flexible and able to address scope creep before it becomes a threat to project delivery.

For more project management benefits and a quick tutorial on creating milestone charts in Runn, book a call with us now!

When to choose: Great for complex, chronological projects with a number of different phases and milestones. Also good for projects with multiple stakeholder groups that need to be kept informed.

For more project management benefits and a quick tutorial on creating milestone charts in Runn, book a call with us now!

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