Project Management by Milestones

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Neville Turbit has had over 20 years experience as a Project Management and IT consultant and almost an equal time working in Business. He is the principal of Project Perfect, a Project Management organisation based in Sydney, Australia that specialises in helping companies put in place the "Project Infrastructure" to better manage projects.

I often see project managers spend hours using their project management software to track each variation to a task.  First it would take 2 days, and then 2.5 days then 3.5 days then back to 2.5 days.  Is this what project management is all about?  I would strongly suggest not.  Here is an analogy.

A train leaves a station and will travel eight hours and make four stops along the way.  For simplicity let’s say each stop is two hours apart.  The journey will have long straight stretches of track and other sections with lots of curves.  Speed will vary along the whole journey.  How do we know if the train is on time?  Do we say that after one hour we should be one eighth of the way to our destination?  Do we even say that after forty seven minutes we should be a certain distance from our starting point?

We don’t track progress second by second.  The driver may well know that after forty seven minutes they usually pass a certain landmark but if they are a minute behind schedule, maybe they can pick up time by going a bit faster on a straight section.  The key to knowing if you are on time is the stations.  If you get to the stations on time, you are on track to get to the destination on time.  If you are late at the stations, you need to do something to make up time if you want to get to your destination on time.  Maybe not stop so long at the next station.  Maybe even accept you will need to change your arrival time.

The point is don’t focus on second by second tracking of where the train is.  Work towards getting to each station on time.   Maybe getting there early is a good idea in case you need some time up your sleeve for unforeseen delays.

It is the same with project management.  By all means do a plan with all your tasks plotted out, but put in milestones and focus on achieving those dates.  Ideally a milestone a week keeps the team focused.  They can mentally juggle all the tasks in between, but their focus is on completing the tasks necessary to achieve the milestone.

As an example, imagine there are five tasks this week that each takes a day.  If completion of those five tasks achieves a milestone on Friday, should we agonize about getting the first done on Monday, the second on Tuesday etc.?  What if we did half of the first on Monday, and got started on the second.  We finish the second on Tuesday, do a bit on one and three.  Three turns out to be easier than what we expect and only takes half a day.  We finish off one on Thursday ….  As long as we get to Friday’s milestone, who cares how we did it?

People can juggle short term work management.  We all do it.  Who comes into work and does exactly what they planned to do that day?  We all have disruptions and distractions.  Our estimates of how long things will take that are totally wrong.  Projects are no different.  So use your project management software to focus on milestones and juggle the tasks in between.  Spending hours updating a schedule for slight variations is not a productive use of a Project Manager’s time.


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