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How Release Management Reduces Risk and Helps Build a Better Feature Roll-out Plan

Will Lam


Releasing a new product is time-consuming. First, you need to understand your customers’ needs, and then you need to figure out the solution you can provide, plan the project, build it, release it, and support it. Each step along the way can have a significant impact on both your team and the customer. That’s what makes release management so important.

The goal of release management is to facilitate the product-development process and make it as efficient and painless as possible. When you manage a release effectively, it helps you gain a better understanding of the tasks and goals associated with each stage of the process. Often associated with the agile methodology and continuous deployment, release management is a framework that helps you think critically and holistically about every project you complete.

Building this process is fairly simple as well; all it takes is some careful planning and a high-level view of the project you want to manage. Do this correctly and you’ll be able to optimize the release process and create better products for your customers and optimized experiences for your team. Release management is at the core of building sticky products that serve a real-world need.

Those needs are unearthed through careful planning. Building a release-management plan starts when you think critically about the impact your product or feature will have on customers. The process you create doubles down on that impact and makes it easy to deliver a better release experience.

What Is Release Management?

Release management is the process of taking a product or feature from idea to deployment as efficiently as possible. It’s one of the most high-leverage plans you can put in place, because it codifies how your team executes on each stage of the product or software development cycle.

The Software Development CycleThe Software Development Cycle

The software development cycle via Relevant

Release management is a cross-functional experience involving members of your product, development, marketing, and support teams. When all these teams come together, you ensure that everyone is on the same page and working together.

Assigning a dedicated release manager for every project can help facilitate the process and make the experience seamless for all involved. They can direct each team member to help you get the most value as possible out of the process.

Why You Need a Defined Release-Management Process

A defined release-management process reduces risk to your business and your bottom line. When you release something new to customers, it has a direct impact on their experience with your product or service. Mismanage any step of the process and you’ll increase the potential for negative experiences for your team and your customers.

Release management also helps you build products faster without sacrificing quality. Your team will gain a better understanding of the underlying drivers behind any upcoming release and the potential impact it has on both your company and your customers.

Putting together a defined release-management process also gives your team specific guidelines for executing on their work. In some ways, it’s similar to overall project plans. These make the product-development process easy to understand and repeatable, which helps you optimize the process incrementally over time. Think about it as a way to optimize the experience of building a product—you’re iterating on what works and identifying potential blockers before they cause issues or bottlenecks.

From a practical standpoint, defining your release management process reduces the potential for bugs or extended periods of downtime for customers. It provides the tools your team needs to collaborate effectively with every member of the organization.

While this may seem like a tall order, creating your release management plan is really just thinking systematically about your approach to a project.

How to Build Your Release-Management Process

The release-management process runs alongside the Agile software development cycle. While the intricacies of each step will vary slightly, depending on your chosen methodologies, it traditionally follows six general steps: planning, building, testing, preparing, releasing, and analyzing.

The release management process

The release management process

This process mirrors “The Software Development Cycle” image above, each step building toward your eventual product release.

1. Release Planning

Every release starts with a comprehensive understanding of your customers’ needs. During the planning stage of release management, you take this understanding and turn it into an actionable plan—one that’s uncomplicated and easy to execute. As a result, planning is one of the most labor-intensive processes in release management. It’s where you define the overall scope of your project and how each of the subsequent steps will progress.

Your goal throughout planning should be to try to cut down as much uncertainty as possible in your development process. Think about this as the time when you define these important aspects of your upcoming project:

  • Deliverables: The actual thing you intend to build. You always need a defined “done state” for the project—one that specifies what you want the results to look like from a product standpoint.
  • Target user: Who is going to get the most value out of the thing you intend to build? Make sure you know exactly which type of customers will be the ideal user for your product. This comes up again in Step 3.
  • Key metrics: How you are going to define and track success. Whenever you plan for an upcoming release, you need to see exactly what kind of impact you want to have on your users and team.
  • Required resources: Who will be working on the project, and how much bandwidth do they have? And are there any potential blockers you can identify before moving forward with the rest of the release management process?
  • Release schedule: How quickly you’ll move through each step and the final release date. A schedule is important for ensuring that all the work required can actually be done on time.

Once you have defined the scope of your project and feel comfortable with your release plan, it’s time to move on to active development.

2. Active Development

Throughout this stage of the process, your team will execute on your release-management plan. They’ll use that documentation to see what tasks they need to accomplish at any time and communicate their progress proactively. This helps cut down on the potential for delays or issues.

Your product or release manager will act as the go-between for each team while also maintaining a high-level view of your progress. This makes it easy to address any pivots or change requests required, which need to be handled immediately to maintain the release schedule.

Keep in mind how the daily work required impacts your team’s experience. It’s important to keep the development process as seamless and painless as possible. As you near the end of active development, it is time to move on to the third step of the release-management process: user acceptance testing.

3. User Acceptance Testing (UAT)

Before you release something to your entire user base, you need to test it. That is why it was important to define a segment of your user base who would get the most out of the feature. Based on their needs, you can reach out and have them interact with the product directly.

This step of the release-management process helps you iron out any bugs and learn more about specific user behaviour that you hadn’t considered during planning. It’s your opportunity to connect with specific customers, foster your relationship, and get them excited for your upcoming release. These real human beings are also a great source of qualitative feedback on your product, which you can use to improve the product before it goes live to the general public.

Create a questionnaire to catalog their feedback. This helps you:

  • Gauge their overall reaction to your new product or feature
  • Gain insight into how they interact with it
  • Identify any potential blockers for a full release.

You can facilitate these tests with DevCycle's feature flags, and control who has access to your beta product. This is a great way to run your tests without impacting other customers and roll back changes easily if an issue arises.

In some cases, the information you get during UAT can put you back to active development to fix particularly difficult bugs. But once you feel comfortable, you can move onto preparation for the full release.

4. Final Release Preparation

With UAT complete, it’s time to prepare for rolling out your new feature to everyone. Double check your release schedule, and make sure you don’t have any outstanding tasks or updates to complete before moving forward. You should also sync up with your team to ensure that you’re all on the same page and ready to go.

Work with your team to make sure everyone has the necessary bandwidth to support the release. You’ll need all hands on deck the day of release, and likely 24 to 48 hours after. This coverage will ensure that you won’t run into any issues as customer engagement scales up.

This is also the time when you should start notifying customers of the upcoming change, if you plan to do so. Triggering personalized messages to each customer telling them about the new release and what they can expect to change, is a great practice.

Next up is your actual release.

5. Product Release

Now that you’re prepared, it’s time to roll out your product to your entire customer base. Using DevCycle's feature flags, you can easily schedule the release and rollout/rollback with ease. Setting a timed release and gradually rolling your features out ensures that you don’t impact your entire customer base if issues arise.

At the start of release day, make sure you remind customers that the feature is going live, and tell them what they can expect in their accounts. Don’t worry about this if the release isn’t customer-facing—you don’t want to surprise anyone with a new feature without context, which is definitely a negative experience.

Make sure you keep an eye on the release using DevCycle to track how each phase of the rollout progresses. You don’t want to negatively impact uptime for your service or cause necessary issues as you scale the new product or feature to more customers. Think about this as your opportunity to see how the release proceeds based on your plan from step one.

Congratulations, you’ve released your product!

6. Tracking Success

Once your new product or feature is fully released to users, set aside time to review how effective the process was. Meet with everyone who participated during each stage of the release-management process and do a retro. Then, use that data to find ways to optimize your next release.

Here are some key points to cover:

  • How well did we follow the schedule laid out in our release plan?
  • Where did we run into issues during the development process?
  • Did everyone communicate their progress proactively?
  • How did our new product or feature impact the customer experience?
  • What could we do better next time around?

This final step is also your opportunity to review key metrics related to engagement with the feature and the overall impact on your customers. Make sure you take note of how the real impact stacked up against your thoughts during planning. Any discrepancies can help you identify where you can optimize the process even further.

Release Management Helps You Build Better Products

With a dedicated release-management process in place and support from DevCycle, it’s easy to roll out new products and features to your customers. When you plan effectively and execute on each step, it makes managing your release that much easier. Each product or feature you build will provide additional data you can use to refine and optimize the release process even further.

Written By

Will Lam