With 80% of companies using Agile project management methodologies to run their businesses, release planning has become more important than ever.
Release planning is the glue that connects your product vision and overall strategy to your day-to-day product development. Releases are the culmination of weeks or months of hard work — and without a clear and organized release planning schedule, all that work can end up going to waste.
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In this guide, we’ll cover the essential elements of release planning, including different planning techniques and a nine-step guide to help you manage your future releases.
What is release planning (and why does it matter)?
Agile release planning is a product management process whereby you plan, manage, and deploy the next version of your product.
The size, scale, and regularity of product releases vary from company to company. Some organizations run two or three large releases yearly, whereas others opt for smaller monthly, or fortnightly releases.
Regardless of which approach you take, the key is to focus on quality rather than quantity in every release.
A worthwhile Agile release must bring real value to your users through new features, bug fixes, or product efficiency. Release too often, and you risk overwhelming your users. Don’t release often enough, and your product can become stale.
At a high level, release planning is important as it:
- Underpins and supports the overall product vision and product roadmap
- Helps you structure and plan your product roadmap into manageable iterations
- Provides visibility and confidence to business stakeholders
- Aligns your product with your customer’s expectations
- Helps team members see the ‘big picture’ of their day-to-day work.
Release planning vs. sprint planning: What’s the difference?
Those new to Agile often confuse release planning and sprint planning, as both focus on iterative work, customer value, and team collaboration.
But, while release and sprint planning can seem similar, they both serve different purposes:
|Release Planning||Sprint Planning|
|Who’s Involved?||Release planning is led and managed by the Product Owner.||The Scrum Master facilitates sprint planning, making it a collaborative process across the entire team.|
|What’s the Objective?||To agree and plan the next batch of features to be released to customers.||To plan the work required to develop new features within the sprint.|
|What’s the Outcome?||New features are delivered to customers as part of a release.||New features are developed, tested, and declared done.|
Ultimately, sprint planning is used to plan the development of new features, whereas release planning is used to plan when a collection of new features are deployed to product users.
A release is almost always made up of multiple sprints — pushing features, fixes, and functionality live when it’s ready for the user and fits with the current product.
What should be included in an Agile release plan?
Like everything in project and product management, one of the foundations of success is having a long-term Agile plan. That’s no different when it comes to release planning.
While release plans look different from company to company, let’s check out some common elements every good plan should include.
- Owner: Every plan needs an owner. To begin, document who owns the release plan so others know who to speak to if changes are required.
- Product vision: Like all strategies, it’s good practice to align work to the long-term vision continually. Capture your product development on your plan to keep the team on track.
- Planned release dates: Map out the dates when you want to release. Again, depending on your business, the culture, and the size of your product, this could range from every few weeks to every three months.
- Key features: Detail the high-level features you want to deliver within each release. In many organizations, these are called ‘epics’ and describe the game-changing capabilities the user will receive.
- Release iterations: Now that you know the dates and the features that make up your release, you must define how many development iterations will contribute. This will largely depend on your organization’s sprint length.
- Release tasks: As you go deeper into your plans for each release, you’ll start to include individual tasks to be ticked off for each iteration. This includes software testing, the creation of release notes, and any training or guidance material for users.
How to master release planning in 9 steps
Now that we know what an Agile release plan is and what to include, it’s time to start preparing for your first product release.
A release is the pivotal moment when a new feature is revealed to your users, so it’s absolutely crucial to get release planning right.
To help, we’ve put together a nine-step guide to walk you through the process:
1. Work with stakeholders to define your product vision & strategy
When it comes to product management, everything starts with your product vision and your product strategy. While Agile teams are used to working in the here and now and learning as they go, a product vision needs to be high-level and long-term. This gives the team a target that’s agnostic of day-to-day changes.
How to create a shared product vision:
- Speak with senior stakeholders to understand the lofty vision of the product (for example, where do you want to be in 5, 10, or even 20 years?)
- Then, formulate your response using this template: “In [time frame], [Company/Product] will be [Large goal].” For example, when Airbnb launched in 2008, its product vision might have been: “In 5 years, Airbnb will be the more affordable and enjoyable way to plan a trip.”
- For more details on how to craft a company or product vision, read our guide on product vision and strategy.
2. Consider your organization’s release capability (i.e., single product vs. multiple products)
Like any good project plan, before you dive into the details, you need to consider the environment around you.
When it comes to setting your release plan, this means understanding your organization’s release capability. Crucially, you need to understand whether your product is decoupled from other applications, and thus, allowed to push out releases on its own terms. If not, you may have to synchronize your releases with other products in the organization.
How to determine your release capabilities:
- Speak with people in your IT infrastructure teams to understand what a release schedule could look like. Cloud engineers, release managers, or technical architects can advise whether you can release as a single product or need to rely on others. On smaller teams or at startups, you might speak to the CTO.
- Remember: The concept of deployment and release can also be separated. If you have to manage dependencies, you can always deploy new features to your live environment in a ‘turned off’ state, ready to turn them on for users at a time that works for you.
3. Map your release goals to your product vision
With your product vision and strategy set and your constraints understood, you can start getting into planning your releases.
The key here is to think about how the capabilities within the release contribute to the vision. This will help you define the goal of the release, both from an internal perspective and from the user’s point of view.
Actionable steps to help you out:
- As the Product Owner, start by proposing a goal for each of your releases. Think about it from a capability point of view, detailing what the product will offer the user or what the user can do following the release.
- Once you’ve proposed a release goal, share it with the team to ensure everyone agrees.
- For example, if you’re managing an app where customers can search for and buy used cars, a release goal may be: “The user can search for cars based on a radius to their location.”
4. Review your product backlog and rank features
Once you’re clear on your releases’ goals, the next step is to go through the product backlog and rank your work items accordingly.
By the end of this process, you should know the critical features required for each Agile release. Remember that in the spirit of Agile, you want to deliver a “minimum viable product” in the first instance, so be prepared to leave less important features for future releases.
Actionable steps to help you out:
- When ordering your backlog, first start by prioritizing the must-have, should-have, and could-have features (in that order) to meet the release goal.
- Once you have your initial order, re-critique yourself by also considering the dependencies, risks, and cost of delay for each feature. This will help you ensure each feature is ordered and prioritized correctly to give you the best chance of achieving the release goal.
5. Estimate the work and plan the release dates
The last thing to do with your backlog is to complete a high-level estimate of the effort for each work item.
Remember, at this stage, these are just high-level estimates designed to help you estimate how long it will take to deliver each release. If you don’t feel 100% confident, like all good projects, you can add some contingency.
Once you’ve aggregated the effort for the items in each release, you can plot some rough release dates across your planning horizon.
How to estimate the work required for a release:
- Estimating is often just informed guessing. Start by speaking to other people at your company who have gone through similar projects to understand how long they took and where they ran into issues.
- Then, consider using Agile-specific estimating techniques, such as story points, t-shirt sizing, and dot voting. All three will provide a simple and effective way to size work items before assigning them a time estimate.
- If you’re entirely new to estimating, we’d recommend starting with our guide to project estimating.
6. Remember to include a ‘deployment/release sprint’
The actual work of executing a release doesn’t happen by itself. That’s why many software teams include a dedicated ‘release sprint’ as part of their plans.
Not all projects need this, but if your deployment process has specific tasks associated with moving code into production, you should create an additional sprint for completing those tasks.
The business environment is rife with changes, re-prioritization, and challenges, so your release plan needs to be fluid and adapt accordingly.
Best practices for creating a deployment sprint:
- No development is done in this sprint, but typical tasks include performance testing, integration testing, regression testing, writing and publishing user documentation, and error fixing.
- Pro tip: If, for any reason, there is any uncompleted work from previous sprints, you can assign it to the release sprint too. But be careful, you don’t want the release sprint to become a dumping ground, so make sure you get the balance right.
7. Focus in on your first release with detailed planning
Now that you’ve finished all of the high-level release planning, it’s time to get into the details of your first release. There’s a lot of cross-over here with sprint planning as you begin to get into the detail of the work, mapping out the tasks, checkpoints, and deliverables to get you over the line.
If you need help planning the details of your first release, start with our guide to sprint planning.
Alongside this, we’d also recommend brushing up on the Critical Path Method for task management. While it’s not an Agile-specific technique, it can help you understand the dependency of your tasks and get ahead of any potential risks for your Agile release.
8. Track your progress with an Agile burndown chart
Release planning doesn’t end when you’ve got V1 of your plan in place. To ensure it’s a success, you need to monitor the team’s progress to spot any issues that need solving.
In Agile teams, one of the most common ways to do this is through an Agile burndown chart. This chart shows how much work has been completed in a sprint and how much work remains, giving you an easy way to track progress vs. the plan.
Pro tip: Ensure you get your team on board with tracking their performance and the benefits for the entire release. Otherwise, the team can feel like they’re being watched, causing morale and the quality of their work to decrease. For additional details, read our guide to Agile metrics.
9. Update the release plan continuously
Lastly, remember that throughout the life of your product, you need to update your release plan continually. The business environment is rife with changes, re-prioritization, and challenges, so your release plan needs to be fluid and adapt accordingly.
As you become more experienced, you’ll also find new ways to streamline the process, deliver value faster, and optimize ways of working for your team.
How to keep your release plan up to date:
- When starting out, dedicate time to review your release plan monthly or every few weeks. Ask yourself whether anything has changed since your last review and whether it reflects your business environment accurately.
- Make sure you circulate any key changes to other product team members for their opinions. You’ll want to ensure everyone is aligned with the release goal and how it contributes to the overall product vision.
Best practices for creating and sharing your release plan
Keeping your release plan up to date and sharing it with the team is super important to keep everyone aligned.
Let’s look at some other best practices to keep your release planning ticking over nicely:
When creating your release plan, ensure each release is staggered correctly. While releasing new features to users is exciting, if you put releases too close together, you risk delays, complications, and fatigue from the team.
Definition of done
Software deployment and releases have forever been plagued by silly bugs and issues. That’s why it’s essential to define, track, and enforce your definition of done with every new feature you create. For more help, read our guide on how to find your definition of done.
Project management software
If you’re a product owner creating your first release plans, save time and effort immediately by using a dedicated product management software.
At Planio, we make release planning easy with a range of handy features to build work items tasks, plan sprints with Agile boards, track progress with burndown charts, and deploy code effortlessly with repository integrations.
Best of all? Your entire team can access everything they need from one place, making it the one-stop shop for all your product planning needs.
Find out more in our guide on how to manage a project.
Release planning is the key to Agile success
Release planning is the glue that combines your product strategy with the day-to-day work of your development team. It’s also the pivotal moment when new features are released to your users, so it’s absolutely crucial to get it right.
The good news is that release planning doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated if you focus on delivering user value through structure and team engagement.
To help, try using Planio to bring your team’s work into one easy-to-use place. With features across the Agile project management journey, it’s the tool you need to maximize your productivity and deliver great products for your users!
Try Planio free for 30 days (no credit card required!)