Setting the Program Milestones
The program milestones set the timeliness or time requirements of the project and come from the business case. The business case may be an internal requirement for a new product, a new or revised process or plant, or a new organizational rollout. The business case may come externally from agencies of government or from customers. The program milestones we speak of are not usually derived from the project side of the balance sheet but are the milestones that identify directly with business value. Some program milestones may include:
Responding on time to Requests for Proposals (RFPs) from customers
Product presentation at trade events
Meeting regulatory or statutory external dates
Hitting a product launch date
Meeting certain customer deliveries
Aligning with other and dependent projects of which your project is a component
Actually deciding on calendar dates for the business-case-related program milestones is very situational. Sometimes if they come from external sources, the milestone dates are all but given. Perhaps a few internal program milestones of unique interest to the business need to be added with the external milestones.
On the other hand, if the project is all internal, then the estimates may well come from other project experiences that are "similar to," or the project sponsor could let the project team "bottom up" the estimate and accept the inevitability of a longer schedule as a cost of doing business. Often, the project sponsor will simply "top down" the dates based on business need. If the latter is the case, the project sponsor must express conviction in the face of all-too-probable objections by the project team that the schedule is too aggressive.
In any event, the final outcome should be program milestones, defined as events of 0 duration, at which time a business accomplishment is measurable and meaningful to the overall objective. To be effective, there should not be more than a handful of such milestones or else the business accomplishments begin to look like ordinary project task completions.
Planning Gates for Project Milestones
The program milestones for certain types of "standard" projects may well be laid out in a prescribed set of planning gates, usually a half-dozen to a dozen at most, with well-specified criteria and deliverables at each gate. For our purposes, a gate is equivalent to a milestone, although technically a milestone has no duration and the event at a gate does take some time, sometimes a week or more. In such a case, there would then be a gate task with an ending milestone. Depending on the nature and risk of the project, such gated processes can themselves be quite complex, requiring independent "standing" teams of objective evaluators at each gate of the process. Taken to its full extent, the gated process may require many and extensive internal documents to support the "claims" that the criteria of the gate have been met, as well as documents for customers or users that will "survive" the project.
Program Milestones as Deterministic Events
Generally speaking, program milestones do not have a probabilistic character, which means that the time for the milestone is fixed and invariant. There is no uncertainty from a business value perspective when the milestone occurs. This is particularly so if the milestone is from an external source, like the day and time that an RFP is due in the customer's hands.
We will soon see that this deterministic characteristic does not carry over to the network schedule. Indeed, the idea of the network schedule is to have a series of linked estimates, one three-point estimate for each task, where the three estimated values are the most likely, the most optimistic, and the most pessimistic. Obviously, right from the beginning there is possible conflict between the business and its fixed milestones and the project with its estimated tasks. The differences in the timelines between the business and the project, as we have noted before, is a risk to be managed by the project manager and set onto the project side of the project balance sheet.