Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
May 23, 2023 · 9 min read

How to master release planning (+ Free Agile release plan)

🎁 Bonus Material: Free Agile release plan Template

How to master release planning

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.

Project Management hierarchy

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:

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.

Sprints between releases

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.

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:

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:

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:

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:

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.

Sprints shown in the Roadmap view

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:

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:

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.

Burndown chart showing a good sprint

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:

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:

Staggered releases

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.

Agile board with tiles coloured according to their priority

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!)