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A milestone is

a significant event or stage in the life, progress, development, or the like of a person, nation, etc.

But does it also imply a chronological step? So does it make sense to say something like: "I suggest you get done with milestone 5 before you start milestone 2"

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    No, step is the proper term to use in that context.
    – user66974
    Nov 5, 2015 at 19:47
  • ... 'Step 5 is a milestone round my neck.' Nov 6, 2015 at 12:04

2 Answers 2

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Just as satellite means something different to an astronomer than to a layman, and nun has a much narrower definition in Catholicism than in general contexts, and tap refers to radically different concepts among plumbers, electricians, software developers, and entertainers, milestone is a term of art in the field of project management. Furthermore, milestone may have an even more restricted meaning within a particular organization, software package, or other context.

The PM definition provided by the Technology Program Office of the University of California, Berkeley is reasonably common:

a scheduled event signifying the completion of a major deliverable or a set of related deliverables.

A milestone in a business project therefore marks a common checkpoint for teams working on the project, where all their various tasks converge. In turn, passing a milestone indicates that the project has moved into a new phase.

There is an implication that milestones follow some sort of progression, and later milestones may have a dependency on earlier ones being achieved first. It is not necessary that this progression be strictly chronological, however, especially in some agile methodologies. Indeed, this is one reason some organizations use codenames instead of numbers or other labels indicating linear progress to mark their milestones. The database team is ahead of schedule and already working toward Maple, so we are going to hold work on Birch and prioritize achieving Sycamore and then Maple. Whether a "milestone 5" can ever come before a "milestone 2" is thus very dependent on the local context.

This is different from the more general understanding of milestone, as for instance defined by Collins:

  1. a stone pillar that shows the distance in miles to or from a place
  2. a significant event in life, history, etc

In the first, literal sense of the word, milestones do indeed follow a linear progression, but that is not the case in the common metaphorical meaning. It might be most common for someone to graduate from a university, get married, and buy a house, but there are many people who achieve these milestones in their life in a different order.

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Milestone long became a part of project manager lingo, where it is used exactly as you described. Milestone is a mark on a project plan, so it can be enumerated, put in a chronological order, etc.

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