Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice on how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on a real-life situation. He then offers a solution, using practical project management techniques.

The dilemma
I had not talked to Matt for a few weeks, and so I asked him how his project to upgrade our standard DBMS platform was progressing.

“I think we are in pretty good shape,” Matt said. “We have a number of changes to make to the database environment. The work is not necessarily complex. It’s just that we have a couple hundred databases to upgrade, and it takes time.”

“It sounds like a challenge,” I agreed. “You said that you thought you were in good shape. Does that mean you are ahead of schedule?”

“I think we are on target,” Matt said, somewhat uncertainly. “But, to be honest, I would have a hard time telling you precisely.”

Matt explained that he had many of his database administrators working on this project full-time or part-time. While some of them were ahead of schedule, others were behind. “It’s hard to figure out exactly where we are at any single point in time,” he said.

We talked for a few minutes about how he was tracking accomplishments and the work in progress. After listening to what he had to say, I did not have a major concern with how Matt was running the project.

On the other hand, it is important to keep track of where you are against your workplan, and you can’t wait until the end of the project to figure that out.

“Let’s talk some more about your workplan,” I said. “You look like you have planned the project well, and it appears you are assigning work effectively. I think you need to set up some schedule milestones so that you can better judge how your project is doing against your plan.”

Mentor advice
Milestones are inserted into the workplan to signify the completion of a major deliverable or a major set of deliverables. They have zero duration. That is, they do not specifically require any work or effort to complete.

However, they signify that the project has passed a threshold. Milestones are especially of interest to your managers and sponsors, since they can provide a high-level snapshot of how you are tracking against your project workplan.

For example, you may add a milestone at the end of the analysis phase to signify the completion of the business requirements. Activities you can do at this checkpoint include validating that your assumptions are still correct, that the budget and schedule are still valid, and that you have business commitment to continue. After that, you can plunge ahead with the next major part of the project.

When you are managing a complex project, many of the activities will usually still follow a sequential pattern. For example, the major analysis is followed by the design, then the construction, and then the implementation of the technology.

However, on Matt’s project, the major activities are somewhat more arbitrary: Matt has many, many activities that are being done in parallel, and there is not necessarily a logical relationship between them. But he can, and should, still set up milestones.

He might establish a milestone at the completion of the migration for each business unit. Or he could set milestones after every 20 databases are converted.

The funny thing about Matt’s project is that he has done a very good job of building his workplan and is managing the workplan well. But, in spite of that, he is nervous about whether he really understands if he is ahead of or behind schedule.

Establishing milestones will allow him to focus on how he is doing. When he reaches each milestone date, he can quickly determine whether all the work up to that point is complete. If it is, then he is on, or ahead of, schedule. If none of the prior work is completed, he is definitely behind schedule. If some work is ahead of schedule and some behind schedule, he can determine if he has the ability to shift resources to overdue work so that the project can get caught up.

Establishing milestones will provide Matt additional information to more proactively manage the project to a successful conclusion.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project-management and life-cycle skills. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

Miles ahead, or miles behind?

What milestones do you include in your projects to ensure you’re hitting all your goals? Do you vary them from project to project, or do you have a “template” that you use? Tell us how it works for you in an e-mail or in a discussion.