PM Articles > Carl Pritchard > Unraveling the Mystery of the Milestone

Unraveling the Mystery of the Milestone

As I write this article, I’m on final approach into Las Vegas, Nevada. The pilot on this particular flight has served as both driver and tour guide, pausing at four intervals along the way to greet the passengers and to highlight local sites of interest 30,000 feet below.

The city down to the right of our flight is Saint Louis, Missouri, Gateway to the West.

If you look out the left side of the aircraft, that’s Lake Powell.

What’s notable is his effective use of milestones. It’s been textbook, which makes you wonder if it’s by design, or happenstance. In our projects, it definitely should be by design, and we should seriously consider the implications of the decisions we make in that regard.

What makes a “good” milestone?

A good milestone meets some pretty specific criteria:

  • It acknowledges significant accomplishment.
  • It can be defined as “done” or “not achieved” without a great deal of investigation.
  • It occurs after some time has passed since the last milestone.
  • It’s something that those involved may actually care about.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike is a long, challenging stretch of road. The folks responsible for the turnpike used to have a pretty clear understanding of the nature of milestones. They accomplished the effective application of milestones through the use of rest stops and service areas. Spaced a little more than an hour apart, these highway oases provided a lovely break from the drive, and a sense that genuine progress toward the long-distance driving goal was being achieved.

Fast forward to the 1990’s and 2000’s, however, and you’ll find a number of changes along that highway that have changed the sense of efficacy the road used to have. First, they’ve closed a number of the rest areas. It’s now possible to drive for over two hours without encountering a single, structured break. And secondly, they’ve added mini-markers between the conventional mile markers. A small post with numbers clearly identifies each tenth of a mile travelled. A tenth of a mile isn’t very long.

Significant accomplishment

I’m certain those mile markers were not meant to simply be milestones for the weary traveler, but they do serve that function. They provide the ability to track just how much distance has been covered and how much further there is to go. But they grow wearisome. At 65 miles per hour, it takes less than six seconds to cover that distance. 142.5 . . . . . . 142.4 . . . . . . 142.3 . . . . . . Driving several hundred miles, that’s quite a bit of counting. While the intent may be to clearly identify location and progress to-date, if you’re an exhausted wayfarer they can literally suck the life out of you. The reason is that nothing significant has been accomplished. No real ground has been covered.

This applies in project life as well. We need to avoid giving team members such minutely incremental progress reports that they get the sense they’re never going to accomplish anything dramatic. When life is a series of tiny non-events, there’s the distinct possibility that you’ll lose sight of the big things that really do matter.

By contrast, the rest areas used to have a reasonable span from one to the next. And oddly enough, that mattered. Knowing that you were coming up on those stone-faced buildings gave you a sense that you had arrived, even though you were still hours from your destination. There was an emotional attachment and significance to the locations. Even if you didn’t stop, you found comfort on the road, knowing that you had achieved something significant.

The lessons here are legion. Create a milestone with an emotional tie, and you win. Create a milestone that allows for reasonable breaks, and you win. Create milestones that capture the essence of significance, and you win. Create something recognizable and clear, and you win.

The compelling part about this is that it doesn’t require a deeply held set of beliefs to work well. It just requires an understanding that human beings develop an emotional attachment when they learn what to expect from a situation. We develop attachments when we believe that others have similar expectations. Milestones can develop significance if we find ways to endow them with these characteristics. In some cases, that involves little more than identifying them and letting others know what they mean. In other cases, sheer repetition is the key.

No matter the approach, we need to work toward and consider the next milestone. It’s one of those areas where we can make a concrete step today. This is a wondrous opportunity to improve our lives and our projects with a single, small step forward. One new and well-chosen milestone can give us new targets to shoot for and new perspectives on progress.

Related Links
Cross-functional teams can get a lot of mileage out of tracking to project milestones. The best project status reports are brief and high-level, avoiding the tenth mile markers. Don’t forget to reward your team when they hit a milestone (or even when they don’t).

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