Three Informal Project Milestones

How can you tell how well a project is going? Many types of projects have formal milestones that help you track your progress, and there are many tools available that enable project management. However, in our research group meeting yesterday, I realised that there are some informal project milestones that are just as important to track.

In our meeting we were reviewing the year and setting some goals for next year. As we were talking, it occurred to me that several of the accomplishements of my students actually represent milestones that must be passed on any major project.

The three big informal project milestones are:

  1. Explaining the project to your partner: This is actually a huge one for any big project. Can you explain what you’re doing to someone who is probably reasonably smart, but doesn’t know anything about what you do? When I was an industrial water treatment consultant, my manager used to say that if I couldn’t explain how water treatment worked to the guys in the plants, I didn’t understand it myself. This was a bit of a challenge, because water treatment involved pretty complex chemical processes, and the guys (they were always guys) in the plants usually didn’t have more than a high school education, and English was often their second language. In time, however, I learned that he was right – if you can’t explain what you’re doing to someone who is interested in it, then you don’t understand it yourself. This is true whether you’re doing water treatment, a PhD on how people search for knowledge within a firm, or developing a new piece of software.
  2. Eliminating Distractions: Long projects are hard because, well, they take a long time to complete. If you’re starting a PhD, you have probably at least three years of work ahead of you. If you’re designing a industrial plant, you’ve got about the same. On long projects it’s easy to get distracted by things – especially things that might have a quick payback. It’s ok to take on side projects occasionally, but usually, if you’re going to finish the big project, you have to stay focused on it.
  3. Finding an endpoint: This one is critical – how do you know when you’re done? Does your PhD need one more empirical chapter? Does your software need one more feature? When we work on long projects, we often end up defining ourselves by the work we’re doing. This can make stopping difficult sometimes. It’s essential that you have an actual endpoint in mind, and that when you reach it, you stop.

Long projects are challenging. They take patience, focus and perserverance to complete, but finishing them is incredibly rewarding. It’s good to plan out how you’re going to finish a big project, and I think that these are three milestones that need to be added to your critical path: be able to explain what you’re doing (and why), get rid of the distracting side projects, and figure out how you’ll know when you’re done.

Related post: How to Finish Your PhD

(photo from flickr/sleepymyf – CC licensed)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.