Can you really manage with just 5 milestones?

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Ninja book cover“A perfect project plan for regular, light-touch steering should contain no more than five milestones,” writes Graham Allcott in his book, How To Be A Productivity Ninja. “Too often, milestones become micro-management or seem to provide complication and confusion rather than clarity. So in each of your projects, you should look for between one and five milestones. Never more than five, never fewer than one.”

Do you agree? I don’t. But let’s put that aside for a moment and look at what he suggests those 5 milestones should be. “The five-milestone model of projects is all you ever really need,” he continues, going on to set out what those milestones should represent. They are:

Establishment: marking the fact that the project is now set up with a team in place.

Underway: checking the progress of the first few days to ensure that things have started in the direction that you expect and find acceptable.

Mid-way: checking progress at the half-way point to ensure you are still on track to achieve the objectives and that those objectives are still relevant.

Completion: marking the fact that the project is now complete, drawing on success criteria that you set at the beginning.

Celebration: a milestone to celebrate success, review learning points and say thank you to those involved.

On small projects this model will probably work quite well. I can see it being used in projects where the team is only a couple of people and the work will be done in a few months or sooner. But on anything that lasts over 6 months, has a sizeable budget or a team of more than 10, this model is inadequate. You would never be able to track progress or report effectively with so few milestones in your project plan.

To be fair to Allcott, he does briefly mention the possibility that “there will be complicated projects with hundreds of inter-dependencies, where you need to find the ‘critical path’ through all of the detail and complication.” In those situations he recommends hiring an experienced project manager, someone, I assume, who can do all that for you. However, “old-style project management [whatever that is] rarely works well for day-to-day projects.” He doesn’t define a day-to-day project but he does talk about creating new brochures and websites so that’s the kind of thing I think he means. As a bit of a fan of ‘old-style project management’ I think it would work well for all kinds of projects, provided that you scale it appropriately, and that doesn’t mean cutting out all the milestones on your project plan so you are only left with 5.

So, what’s the smallest amount of milestones that you would have on a plan, or is the answer really ‘it depends’? Let me know in the comments below!


  1. If everything is a project and everyone is a project manager, then I guess most project managers will use “lightweight” project management methodologies. Those of us who need to use industrial strength methods will have more than five milestones, and those who must stop walking in order to safely chew gum will have one or (maybe) two. For the majority in the middle, five might actually be a reasonable rule of thumb.

    In any case, the ability to anticipate and celebrate completion of planned work adds value, for both the people doing the work and those waiting for the project to be finished. Thus, I recommend a value-based approach to creating milestones – not so frequent that they become background noise, and not so rare that stakeholders look for other metrics.

    1. So the answer reall is, ‘it depends’! I’m not one for hard and fast rules and I like to advocate that project managers should use their professional common sense to manage effectively, given the business environment, their project and the overall situation. But that does rely on project managers having enough experience to be able to make sensible judgements about how many milestones to use on a plan. Still, if you don’t get it wrong occasionally, you’ll never learn! Thanks, Dave.

  2. It depends. 🙂 In the corporate world, there’s no way you can get by with that few or even the specific ones mentioned. Often you need a milestone for each major deliverable, which could be a product delivery or an artifact. Also, a milestone usually isn’t based on a time period. It’s binary, either 0% complete or 100% complete and never anything in between.

    Now having said that, the more milestones you have, the harder the project schedule is to manage. So, I definitely appreciate the sentiment about having fewer and simpler milestones.

    Great blog, btw!

    1. It’s so dependent on the project and the project management environment you work in, in my opinion. As you say, in a corporate environment you’d expect to see many more. But as Paul says below, and you comment on too, it’s harder for a PMO or executive team to review long lists of milestones for project tracking. So the trick is to get the balance right – and that’s a skill in itself.

  3. I, like you, am not convinced that you can “Manage” with five milestones unless it is a small projects. However as a Projects Coordinator monitor over 60 projects and I use milestones from the Project managers for this. I am constantly encouraging them for a higher level of detail than I get however.
    The smallest number of milestones I allow is 2, Planned start and planned end, but this would be only for a project of less than 1 month duration. I look for about one milestone per month as a rough guide.

    1. Paul, that’s a good point. Consolidated reporting is one reason why you would want only a few milestones; if you do have a lot of projects to monitor then you couldn’t cope with dozens. However, I think the book is advocating active project management with 5 milestones, not governance or project tracking.

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