What is a Release Plan?
You may think release planning is a relic of waterfall development or comes with too much drag. I've heard similar views too. Below, I'll break down what a release plan is and why having one brings valuable focus to your product development efforts
First, let's define a release plan. It's a tactical doc that captures the features and projects earmarked for an upcoming product release. It provides guidelines on what will be built and when it will be completed. For product managers, the release plan is an essential tool to align the team and drive results.
Release Plans vs Other Product Documents
It's important to understand where release plans fit among other product management artifacts:
Release Plans vs Product Vision
The product vision articulates the long-term (5-10 years) aspiration and purpose for your product. It describes what you want your product to become in the distant future and that is why visions are ambitious and impactful.
Release plans, on the other hand, have a short-term quarterly focus outlining the incremental features you will deliver in the next release to move towards the broader vision. Release plans help make tangible progress toward the lofty vision.
Release Plans vs Product Strategy
The product strategy defines the path you will take over the next 1-3 years to realize your vision. It states the specific problems you are solving, target customers, go-to-market motions, and key bets the product needs to make.
In comparison, the release plan zooms in on a slice of the product strategy, usually a quarter or two, and breaks it down into concrete deliverables. The release plan details how you will execute a portion of your product strategy in the immediate future.
Release Plans vs Product Roadmaps
The product roadmap provides a longer-term view of major initiatives spanning 6-18 months. It shows the direction and sequencing of projects. The roadmap does not list granular requirements.
The release plan outlines the specific journey and implementation details for the next release, typically a quarter or two. It shows how you will deliver value in the short term.
The Benefits of Release Planning
Having a release plan brings several benefits:
- Aligns teams on what will get built and when through clear deliverables and timelines
- Enables collaboration across functions like engineering, design, and marketing
- Drives accountability by assigning owners for each project or feature
- Increases efficiency through coordinated efforts on a focused set of projects
- Adapts easily as priorities change by updating the plan
- Delivers value quickly through regular release cycles
- Reduces risk through incremental delivery rather than big bang releases
Without disciplined release planning, product development becomes reactive and chaotic. Resources get fragmented across too many undefined projects. Regular release planning brings much-needed focus and coordination.
How to Create a Release Plan
Alrighty, enough jawing. Let's get into the nitty-gritty of how to create an effective release plan for your product teams.
Step 1: Define Your Timeframe
First things first, set the duration for your release, typically a quarter or two. Anything longer comes with boatloads more risk—so avoid it if possible. Most teams use quarterly or 8-week sprint cadences.
Shorter cycles mean more planning rigor, but also greater agility. Choose a predictable release tempo tailored to your team's capacity to deliver.
Step 2: Review That Roadmap, Baby
Once you've picked your timeframe, analyze your product roadmap to ID big initiatives fitting that window. Those become epics defining the theme of your release.
Choose initiatives aligning with current goals with enough detail for execution. Dodge unfinished ideas without clear implementation plans. You'll get to those gems later.
Step 3: Detail Those Features
Time to unpack those high-level epics into specific features and technical specs for your engineers. Now is the moment to ruthlessly prioritize. Resist cramming 'cool' features just because and instead laser focus on projects delivering real business results.
Clearly define each item in full. Break epics into granular stories for your team to execute on. Enough detail is key.
Step 4: Select Them Owners
For each feature or project, tap lead owners from product, design, and engineering.
Owners bring accountability to the plan, they commit to finishing their items for the release. No ownership, no results—you feel me?
Step 5: Outline The Timelines
Map out timeframes for starting and completing each project or feature.
Timelines enable tracking progress during development. They surface delays early when still fixable. Build in padding for the unknowns.
Step 6: Plan That Launch
Determine all activities for a coordinated launch:
- Announcements to pump up the hype
- Blog posts and content to educate users
- Email campaigns to drive adoption
- Sales and user training
- Updated documentation, help guides, etc.
Do this in parallel with dev work for a synchronized release.
Step 7: Track Progress
- Monitor work status weekly and course correct when needed.
- Use feature flags to launch on time even if some items slide.
- Be ready to re-plan if events require. Don't cling to outdated plans.
Release Plan Template
Leverage this template as a starting point to craft your release plans. We'll walk through what to include in each section.
Lay out the key parameters for your release:
- Timeframe: Specify the duration such as Q3 2022 (July-Sept)
- Goals: Define quantitative business goals tied to the release such as revenue, number of customers, or other KPIs
- Themes: Summarize the 2-3 main themes or initiatives that characterize the release
Break down initiatives into granular features to be delivered:
- Feature 1
- Requirements: Detailed specs and acceptance criteria
- Owner: Person accountable for delivery
- Timeline: Target start and end dates
- Feature 2
Specify any essential integrations, technical debt, or infrastructure work required to support the features:
- API version update
- GDPR compliance implementation
- Migrate data centers
Outline activities to launch, promote adoption, and support the release:
- Launch announcement
- Educational webinars
- Blog content calendar
- Email marketing campaigns
- Sales enablement collateral
- User training programs
- Support documentation
Set up tracking to monitor progress during development:
- Feature 1 - Designs signed off, dev starting
- Feature 2 - Dev in progress, estimated complete 7/15
The more detailed your release plan, the better equipped your team will be to deliver successfully.
The Secret to a Great Planning Process by Lenny Rachitsky
Lenny Rachitsky emphasizes the importance of a robust planning process in achieving product success. He suggests that while many teams dread planning, it's an invaluable tool that aligns the team, sets clear priorities, and provides a roadmap to success. A well-structured planning process can be the difference between a product's success and failure.
10 Tips for Product Owners on Release Planning by The Value Maximizers
Release planning is a pivotal phase for product owners, and this article offers ten actionable tips to enhance its effectiveness. Emphasizing the balance between flexibility and commitment, the article underscores the significance of understanding stakeholders, setting clear objectives, and iterative planning. For product managers, mastering release planning can be a game-changer in product delivery.
The Product Roadmap and the Release Plan by Roman Pichler
Roman Pichler delineates the differences between a product roadmap and a release plan. The roadmap is a strategic overview of a product's evolution over a year or more, focusing on overarching goals. In contrast, the release plan is a tactical projection of a major release's development, typically spanning three to six months, ensuring alignment with the product's strategic vision.Last Updated: 11.4.2023
Kareem is a co-founder at Savio. He's been prioritizing customer feedback professionally since 2001. He likes tea and tea snacks, and dislikes refraining from eating lots of tea snacks.
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