In projects, particularly change management projects the term “milestone” comes up a lot. It’s a metaphorical marker for some measure of progress, usually a marker with some significance. For example in the Obama campaign they needed to get to 1,000,000 calls up from 700,000 so asked their supporters to make five calls. They reached the 1,000,000 milestone within 24 hours.

To be successful the milestone needs to be ambitious, and a round number – aiming for 746,000 is a bit more difficult to promote. It needs to be widely communicated, along with the rationale for getting it. Importantly, once achieved it needs to be recognised and celebrated.

The term comes from physical milestones, used to mark the route from one city or town to another and often including the distance – measured in miles. So on a  journey you could note the distance covered so far, and check that you were still on track to reach your final destination. Not very different from its current metaphorical use.Milestones are old, they were used in Roman times when a “Golden Milestone” was erected in the centre of Rome from which all distances in the empire were measured. They were used throughout Europe and many are still visible, and in some cases still used as the point from which distances are measured.

Milestones are still in use, but in most countries are more likely to be metal plaques along a highway rather than the stone markers. Sometimes the markers don’t exist, but their theoretical position is used to create a grid framework for naming roads or highway exits.I hear the term used fairly frequently at work, but usually with a meaning that is metaphorically close the original.

image Milestone /Tim Green/ CC BY 2.0

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