Effective Projects – Inch Pebbles, Milestones and Tombstones

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Milestones, Inch Pebbles, Project Management, ProjectsIt’s fair to say that I’ve been involved in my fair share of projects during my career. Some have been market changing product launches or operational transformations and some have been must do, dull, but important projects. Others have been misguided, bonkers and failed projects. I’ve learnt from each and every one of them.

The most important thing that I have learnt is that every single member of the project team needs to know the game they’re playing; the rules of the game, what the pitch looks like, what the weather is like, what their role within the team is and what their strengths and weaknesses are, what the opposition looks like and how dirty they play, how long the game takes to play and is there any extra time or penalty shoot-outs, and ultimately what are the implications of not winning. Are they playing in a league with over 30 plus games, a competition where there are knockout stages or is it a one-off must-win game? All of these questions matter in how you plan your approach.

All that said, do you as a leader know what the end game is? Do you know what compromises can be made and ultimately what will make the project succeed or fail? If you don’t, you will most likely fail.

Many of the most difficult projects that I’ve worked on have been with multi-disciplinary teams and/or virtual teams; teams from a wide range of disciplines across an organisation including external suppliers. The most complex projects have involved multiple suppliers from across the globe and have required regulatory input or involve multiple executive teams.

Whatever the level of a project, you as a sponsor, leader or project manager need to understand that there are multiple levels of goals within a project and that they all need to be managed, controlled and acted upon.

Let’s start with Tombstones

Tombstones are non-moveable dates. Some examples might be:

  • You have committed a date contractually to a customer
  • You have committed to delivery dates to the stock market and /or investors
  • Your business cash-flows and /or profit are dependent on you hitting sales figures by a particular point in the year

These, as the name suggests, are not just set in stone. If you fail to meet these dates, there are serious implications. You may lose a customer and be liable to penalty payments, your stock plummets or your investors no longer support you or ultimately your business fails because you haven’t brought enough sales in. You may lose your job and others may lose theirs. It is that serious.

Sponsors, Leaders and Project Managers need to guard Tombstones with their professional lives. If these are not met, your project will fail and ultimately your whole business could be jeopardised.


Milestones are the next level down from Tombstones. Milestones are relatively high-level project steps that need to be closely monitored by a project board to ensure that a project is on track or if not, gives enough early indications of issues or challenges that can be acted upon and fixed before causing an organisation problems.

In large projects, Milestones tend to be owned by workstream leads and they are responsible for delivery of milestones and reporting back on progress.

Milestones are not just a line in the sand that can be rubbed out and moved a few feet back when the going gets tough. They are important stages in a project that, if met on time, to budget and quality, are moments to celebrate. If they’re not met, they should not just be moved back and re-calibrated. These are the moments to learn quickly, ask questions of yourself and your team. What has gone wrong, why and what needs to be done to get back on track? Milestones are key to the success of a project and should only be moved in exceptional circumstances. They should also not be a surprise to the project team. Milestones are laid out at the outset of a project and whilst there may be some wriggle room, this should not be a given to those responsible for delivering inch-pebbles.

Inch Pebbles

Inch Pebbles are the detailed steps within any project. They should be invisible to the sponsor and senior leaders within a large project, but absolutely visible to a workstream lead and potentially to a project manager, depending on the size of a project.

Inch Pebbles are the key to the success of any project. Details matter! Project team members need to take on board not only which inch pebbles they are responsible for delivering, but also the implications of non-delivery to their workstream and to the wider project. At this level within a project, more often than not, deliverers of inch-pebbles have a myriad of deliverables for multiple projects and their day job to contend with. If they don’t understand the bigger picture and the multiple games they are involved with and their relative importance for an organisation, they could ‘drop the ball’ and the project, organisation and ultimately the customer, fails.

In an ideal world, we would all have a singularity of focus. This is extremely rare in large project teams unless they are discrete, skilled, focused and time-bound. In my view, the best kind of team. This happens rarely in my experience unless in a ‘hothouse’ or start-up environment. Both of which are relatively short-term projects. More commonly, team members are managing multiple tasks or workstreams within multiple projects as well as ‘the day job’ and so needs careful time management from the individual and careful oversight from the project manager(s). Where this is the case, an absolute clarity on organisational priority at the individual, team, project manager and project board is imperative.

Ultimately, a strong project board and an empowered, focussed and informed delivery team is the best way to ensure effective delivery of every project. The challenge is timely and effective information flow across the whole team to ensure that inch pebbles, milestones and tombstones lead to successful project delivery and not failed promises and careers.

How does your organisation deal with projects? We would love to hear your thoughts!