The what & how-to of Agile release planning
In a perfect world, everything would always go according to plan.
When tackling a new product version, everyone would work relaxing 8-hour days, and every potential problem would be solved preemptively.
It would be ready and bug-free on schedule. Smiling coworkers would high-five with triumphant music playing in the background. And don’t forget the celebratory confetti.
But that’s not how things work in the real world.
Software development is notoriously difficult to predict in the long-term, leading to a ton of unforeseen work, late nights, and stress if you need to meet inflexible deadlines.
Agile release planning is a product management method based on batching iterations. By focusing on the short term and repeating the process, you can adapt better and progress faster.
In this article, we’ll break down Agile release planning from A to Z, and show you how to implement it in your own company.
What is Agile release planning?
Agile release planning is a product management method where you plan incremental releases of a product. It differs from traditional software planning where you focus on major releases.
In Agile release planning, you prepare for staged releases and then break those down into several different sprints or iterations.
Depending on your team structure and the size of the project, you may even have several sprints running at the same time.
A sprint ends with a new product increment, but that may not mean a product release happens.
Think about writing a book — each sprint should end with a new draft. But, just because you have a finished draft for your client (editor, publisher, etc.) to review doesn’t mean you release it to the public.
Release planning helps you plan which product increments (versions) get released to the market and when.
This approach helps your team adapt to the unpredictable nature of software development.
And it’s an integral part of the Agile SDLC (Software Development Life Cycle).
You might create versions 1.1, 1.12, 1.14, 1.2, and so on, each one incorporating the new features and improvements of the last. But you’ll only release the big ones (1.1 and 1.2, etc.)
Under 15% of leaders think their employees are ready to work in an Agile environment and self-organize. So, release planning is a vital structural tool, especially for teams new to Agile.
It gives the higher-ups peace of mind that there’s a structure and plan beyond just the next sprint, and helps the individual Agile teams stay on track.
What is the purpose of release planning in Agile?
The purpose of release planning within the Agile methodology is to ensure the product is always moving in the right direction and that logical releases are frequently happening.
A release plan outlines immediate future releases but doesn’t try to plan for years to come.
It goes into more detail than a product roadmap (high-level scope and timeline).
But an Agile release plan doesn’t outline the work in each release. Instead, it batches iterations or sprints together into releases.
Old-fashioned executives fear going Agile means each version is a random collection of features. A release plan ensures that you create a coherent version of your product every time.
It’s a great tool for combining changes that will have a significant impact on the user experience.
Overall, implementing Agile can help you cut your time to market for a new product by up to 70%.
When to do release planning in Scrum?
Release planning comes after you’ve outlined your product vision and roadmap.
Planning and combining sprints into larger releases is often a good idea. Especially if you have a lot of major items in your product backlog.
Most people don’t like change. Users take time to adapt to a new interface. So batching changes to the UX is a must.
Scrum release planning isn’t part of the original processes or meetings in the Scrum Guide.
Since the focus of Scrum is on shorter sprints, some teams work without release planning at all.
Instead, they just release the product increment. That keeps the focus on speed and adapting to the stakeholder needs at any moment.
Who is responsible for release planning in Scrum?
In Scrum, the release planning process isn’t reserved for product managers and C-suite execs. Your product owner and Scrum team must also participate.
The team can also be solely responsible for the plan depending on your company structure.
The Scrum team is often better connected to the current state of the software and all the different stakeholders, so they tend to lead the decision-making.
The release cycle should always be driven by those closest to the project. If not, you risk creating a roadblock instead of a roadmap. And nobody wants that.
How to implement Agile release planning
If that’s the case, getting started with Agile release planning is quite simple.
#1: Evaluate your product vision and roadmap and single out outcomes
Your overall product vision and the product roadmap should guide the whole process. Focus on outcomes.
Which outcomes are the most important in the short to medium term?
Discuss this question with your main stakeholders and customers.
#2: Expand and prioritize your product backlog based on these outcomes
If you use Scrum, meet with your Agile team for a product backlog refinement meeting.
Break down your desired outcomes into specific user stories and add them to your backlog.
Prioritize the backlog, based on the desired outcomes, starting with an MVP (minimum viable product).
You don’t want to work on irrelevant things, and you can’t release something that’s not viable (can function on it’s own).
For Agile frameworks that don’t use a product backlog, like Feature-Driven Development, review the equivalent item. In the case of FDD, it’s the features list.
#3: Set a clear release goal that combines logical product backlog items
Create a release goal that combines different user stories into a meaningful change in user experience.
For example, the ability of a user to access different analytics reports on the mobile app.
If you’re creating multiple reports, it makes sense to release them together, rather than piece-meal.
#4: Break your releases down into multiple sprints or iterations
Once you’ve got your release goal and targeted user stories, it’s time to start planning your actual sprints.
Don’t forget the main Scrum values.
- Keep sprints short and commit to an achievable number of user stories.
- Focus on one sprint at a time.
- Have the courage to break the release plan when absolutely necessary.
- Respect everyone’s perspective when choosing items and estimating scope.
Don’t target too much and try to complete a huge release in one go. But don’t drag releases out either — If you push the timeline into multiple months, you are longer practicing Agile development. There needs to be a happy balance.
Release planning is an art. You won’t get it perfect the first time. Don’t be afraid to adjust your release plan and your sprint planning as you go. That’s what being Agile is all about.
Agile release planning is the antidote to aimless development. You can give your stakeholders exactly what they want, without inconveniencing existing customers.
Sometimes longer-term planning is necessary to bring about major improvements to the user experience.
With monday.com’s Agile planning template, you can easily break down your planned releases into tangible iterations.