Milestone countdowns actually work; here's why

T-40, 39, 38 isn’t just for NASA, use it on your projects and get to 3, 2, 1… success!

I can still remember the go-live date: 17th June 2006. The project was a large ERP implementation across HR, Finance, Procurement and Property, our team was 100+ business and IT people delivering to 3000 users spread across numerous cities. A waterfall project over 3 years implemented everything on one crucial, big bang date.[1st of 5 paragraphs]

We set the go-live date in the November of the previous year as we were wrapping up design phase. There was enough convergence in all the workstreams to calculate this end point with a sufficient threshold of quality – achieving 100% would push it out too far and wasn’t worth it. Getting the system live by an achievable but near enough date was far more important and we started counting down as soon as we fixed the date. [2/5]

When you wake up in the morning the day stretches before you, when you start a new year, the 12 months seem like a long time. When you run a project or lead a team with deadlines, the urgency of today is never like the time pressure of the day before you actually deliver. Turn that around and galvanise your team by thinking in terms of hours left in the day, months left in the year and what I find most useful; days left till a certain milestone. [3/5]

Make your countdown visible, consistent and fun; put it on the team chat group, do a daily deskdrop, put up posters – it doesn’t matter how you communicate it just don’t annoy people. Create a rhythm of progress and focus by marking each time unit that has elapsed (and won’t come back). You will generate a self-evident focal point which galvanises everyone to a mutually dependent, time based goal. [4/5]

In the large ERP programme, word spread far beyond the project team because of the countdown and implied importance of the milestone. This was a simple but powerful change agent and we were careful to ensure it was positive pressure, not a drumbeat of death. Just like the last 20 seconds in the NASA control room the wave of will power and momentum brought it all together and at T-0 we blasted off. [5/5]

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