Milestone levelling -­ what makes an effective plan

Milestone levelingPlanning. Where to start. Well the lyrics from a very well known song from The Sound of Music suggest “Let’s start at the very beginning, A very good place to start”. But when planning a project, I’d suggest the opposite is true. I believe you need to start with the end in mind.

And that end will be one or more key deliverables or outcomes –‐ the things the project must deliver or achieve to be successful. These deliverables or outcomes should be described in as much detail as you can. The detailed descriptions will help you understand what needs to be done to enable you to achieve them. Let’s use an example of creating a new product –‐ a video course on healthy eating to be sold online and through a chain of health food shops. So you are going to create the videos themselves and make them available on DVD and through an internet site. So there is physical product to produce plus distribution to the stores, online delivery, marketing (online and physical materials needed) and a support team to respond to telephone and online queries.

Already you can see that single deliverable or outcome –‐ a video course on healthy eating –‐ has broken down into a number of components. Now we could launch online first and then follow up with in–‐store DVD’s later so maybe it makes sense to break the core deliverable into two. For our plan let’s consider the two as separate and create a milestone for each of them. Because these are our ultimate deliverables I am going to set these as Level 0 (L0) milestones.

Now we have set the end point and understand what it will take to deliver against it, we can break down the elements needed to achieve that end point. Let’s think about the vide course itself in the example. To deliver online, we will need a website set up to host the videos with the ability to control access to only those people who have paid. We will also need copies on DVD. So we have two core deliverables. These are required to support our L0 milestone delivery so we will set these as Level 1 (L1) milestones. There will be some common activities to support these two L1 milestones –‐ such as scripting and recording the videos –‐ and some unique activities such as creating the hosting website, setting up website access etc for the online version and DVD production, DVD case design etc. for the DVD version. Each of theses would have a series of L2 milestones.

Do you start to get the picture now? Working backwards from the end deliverable or outcome, break the project down in to layers or levels of deliverables, each supporting the level above. This way we don’t miss any deliverables along the way. Now for larger and more complex projects you may need to do quite a bit of work to break down deliverables into their components and for later stages, this may not be possible up front. That’s fine –‐ you will build activity into you plan to refine and breakdown later deliverables as you go through the project.This approach of milestone levelling ensures each higher level deliverable is supported by lower level deliverables right down until you get to actual tasks to create the deliverables.

Notice we haven’t talked about time, effort or resources yet. That’s because the essence of a good plan is the deliverable. Once you have the deliverables broken down you can look at the tasks needed to deliver them, how long they will take and what resources are required. Resource and date constraints can then be added to assess the risk/viability of the project. You can start to look at what tasks can be performed in parallel and which ones have to be done in sequence because of dependencies. You can assess the extra risk and management oversight of doing lots of things in parallel. If anything slips you will be able to assess the impact on higher level milestones though the deliverable dependencies.

In our example, if the DVD production was delayed this would impact the DVD launch, but not the online launch. However, a delay to production of the videos themselves would delay both outcomes of the project.

We haven’t got as far as a detailed task list and full work breakdown structure, but critically, you will have a levelled milestone plan to track your project to successful completion.

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One comment on “Milestone levelling -­ what makes an effective plan
  1. Allen,

    Well said. It doesn’t matter if your preference lies with Prince2 or PMI, a project should never start without proper planning and knowing what success looks like when it’s completed. Even though you’re across the pond, we appreciate your vision.

    Best regards,

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