How to Write a Product Release Plan
All endeavors start from one point: a plan. Planning is an integral part of every process, and it is said that, without planning, there is very little to zero rate of success. When starting a business or working on expanding it, you need a plan, and that is embodied in a business plan. When developing new products, there is also a need to draw up the product plans. Prior to releasing a new product, documentation is also required, and that is in the form of the Product Release Plan, which is also sometimes known as the Product Launch Plan.
In this article, you will learn about 1) the basics of product release planning, 2) the product release planning process, 3) the product release plan, 4) a template for a product release plan, and 5) the concept of agile product release planning.
PRODUCT RELEASE PLANNING BASICS
You cannot expect to have a successful product launch if you do not have a solid plan in place on how to go about it. Look at the tech companies when they launch new products. They do not do it haphazardly or in half-hearted manners. They go “all-out”, and these are largely thanks to a lot of planning and execution that went behind the scenes. More often than not, the product launch is indicative of the success of the product and, eventually, of the business.
Product release planning is the process of deciding which features will be offered and, if so, in which of the future product releases will they be incorporated. It also covers the release period, or the interval until the time that the product is released.
Let us put it this way: customers, as well as all the other stakeholders, are constantly looking for new and more features. The question is, what features should be released next? Why should these features be selected instead of the others? When will it be released? Product release planning aims to answer all these questions.
A good example can be seen in the software industry, where products are usually delivered in releases. While some prefer to do one-time big releases, others opt to make the releases on an incremental basis. Some do it annually while others choose to release on a semi-annual or quarterly basis.
Benefits of Product Release Planning
Product release planning provides several benefits to businesses, and they include the following:
- It improves the communication within the organization – among members, horizontally and vertically.
- It provides the business a clearer view of its objectives and goals since it facilitates the alignment of the goals of the business and its programs.
- It allows the business to identify its dependencies.
- It encourages coordination among and between teams, programs and projects within the business.
- It improves business efficiencies by matching demand to capacity since it decreases (and even eliminates) excess works in progress.
Challenges Faced in Product Release Planning
Product Release Planning is actually quite a complex process, and one that cannot be easily learned by reading a book or browsing many articles.
The difficulties encountered in release planning are caused by the following:
- Unclear and vague features. If the features or specifications are not properly and completely presented, they will be difficult to understand, and virtually makes evaluating them near to impossible.
- Project size and complexity. Not all projects are the same. Some are bigger than others, and there are projects that are more complex than the rest.
- Fast pace of change. Change is constant, and it also affects release planning. As the project is underway, it is inevitable that some changes may take place. Some features planned on before may no longer make sense several months into the development of the project. The priority of the company may also change over time, and it is also possible that the business will encounter situations that will affect its resources and its ability to fund what was originally planned.
- Uncertain, incomplete and inconsistent information. There is a certain degree of difficulty in obtaining data needed for release planning. Most are estimates, so there is also some uncertainty thrown into the mix.
THE PRODUCT RELEASE PLANNING PROCESS
Normally, it is advised that product planning begin at least one year before the product is set to be released in the market. Below is a comprehensive guide through product release planning.
Step 1. It starts with a product idea. Check if someone has already thought of the same idea. If there is already a listing indicating that someone beat you to the punch, check if they are exactly the same. Take note of differences, and think how to make your idea more attractive.
Step 2. Conduct market research. This is to primarily determine if there is demand for the product you have in mind. Compare the demand with that of similar products that already exist. You should also identify who your target market is or who your potential customers are. The market research will also guide you when determining costing and pricing.
Step 3. Determine the resources you will require from the time you start developing the product until it is released. Check if you have available sources of funding, manpower, and the skill sets required for the product.
Step 4. Look into possible channels or modes of distribution, and decide which one will be most beneficial.
Step 5. Develop a product prototype and conduct testing and trial runs. Tweak, rework and modify until the product has met your standards.
Step 6. Set a product release date. It is important to leave sufficient time between the actual release date and the time you set it. That interval will be used for you to build awareness about your product and hype up the public about it. This can be done through various marketing programs and techniques. Releasing samples is also a good idea.
Step 7. Release the product.
However, some businesses are more particular in their release planning and conduct them in stages, starting with its preliminary release planning. In this initial stage, the goal is to make a rough estimate on the features that will be delivered once the fixed release deadline comes around. In some cases, the preliminary release planning is also conducted in order to choose a tentative delivery date for a given set of features or specifications of the product.
The results of the initial planning stage will be the basis of the business on whether to drop the product, or proceed with its release.
THE PRODUCT RELEASE PLAN
The product release plan (or the product launch plan), although there is no formal form that you should follow, must contain the vital information regarding the product release.
Contents of the Product Release Plan
- Release requirements: In the book “Manage It!” by Johanna Rothman, she identified three components of every project:
- Driver: The most critical component, this is the item that the project absolutely cannot do without. Examples are the features of the product (these are the reasons why customers will buy it) and the date of release of the finished product.
- Constraints: Although the project is not hinged on the presence of these constraints, they are still considered to be vital to its success. The most common constraints include budget, resources, and technical aspects.
- Floats: These are the components that the company can actually control or manage.
- Release criteria: These will denote that the release is ready to be delivered or shipped to the market. If the criteria are met, then the product is ready for launch. Some examples include specific features (e.g. the number of defects) and a deadline or timeline.
- Release goals: What are the items that are supposed to be completed simultaneously with the release? For example, the business may be planning on conducting another set of tests for the product, aside from the previously planned automated testing process. These are not necessarily the expected end results but more like those that are expected to also be realized when the release has been completed.
- Schedule overview: Releasing the product will involve a timetable. Provide an overview of the schedule or the timing of the various activities involved in the release. What is the release deadline? Normally, release deadlines are fixed by specific activities such as contractual terms and obligations, pressure from accounting or even from stakeholders, and tradeshows where the product is meant to be launched. When scheduling, the most recommended methodology involves setting milestones first and working your way down. For each milestone, write down or include the estimated date for its completion. This will give you a more organized and chronological order to things.
- Risks: Enumerate the potential risks that the product being launched is likely to face, or the overall risks that the whole process of releasing the product will, in all probability, encounter. By identifying the possible risks, the business will be able to formulate decisions to mitigate them, so they will be better prepared to deal with potential problems that may arise.
TEMPLATE OF A SAMPLE PRODUCT RELEASE PLAN
The Product Release Plan document usually contains the following sections:
- Executive Summary
- Go to Market Plan
- Product Release Milestones
- Plans and Deliverables (usually by department)
- Launch Budget and Revenue Forecast
- International Support Plan
- Launch Status Communications
For some businesses, product releases can be a hit or a miss. However, with proper planning of all the activities and other variables involved in product release, the business will have higher chances of having a successful product release.
LEARNING THE CONCEPT OF AGILE RELEASE PLANNING
Release planning is considered to be one of the most important stages of product development since you will be essentially committing yourself to a plan for delivering product value in increments or intervals. In the agile world, release planning largely depends on the agile team’s (also called ‘development team’ and ‘delivery team’) velocity, or the amount of work that the team can finish for each iteration. The basis of estimates in the release plan will be the track record of said team on their last development project, if any.
Agile release planning essentially follows the basics of your regular release planning, but with certain modifications. We will try to look into them next.
Scope of Agile Release Planning
- Duration of software or product development. The ultimate goal of software development is to bring the software to the end users in the shortest time possible. This is also one way to enable the development team to be able to make tweaks or necessary corrections and adjustments. That is the reason why, more than keeping their sights on a specific release deadline, it is more important to make sure the release software development cycles are kept short, from 3 months to 6 months, as long as it does not exceed one year.
- Delivery of software to users. At the end of every iteration, it is possible to deliver the developed software in increments. Some businesses do this in longer intervals, such as 2 or 3 iterations.
- Clear separation of duties and responsibilities. During the product or software development, it is so easy for team members to be confused on what their roles are. That’s why it is important to make sure that the responsibilities of the programmers or developers and the customers are clearly defined and distinguished. For example, it is the customers who will decide what they need and want the software to be developed; it is the programmers who will be responsible in executing the tasks necessary to address those needs and wants.
Preliminary Agile Release Planning
Agile release planning also fosters the need to conduct initial release planning meetings, where the members of the team will be discussing, albeit roughly, the following issues, among others:
- When the release deadline or delivery date will be;
- The features that are expected to be delivered by the deadline;
- A rough estimate on the amount of work and resources required for each feature.
Getting in touch with users or customers and their stories will give you an idea what they need. List them all down, and then proceed to prioritizing them according to importance. Talking with users as well as members of the team will greatly help in the prioritization stage. What follows will be the estimation by the Scrum team. It’s all right if the prioritization and effort estimation are rough initially, because the agile team will go through them again for refining. Once they have been refined, it is time to consider them alongside the team’s velocity.
It is also during the initial planning stage that the team’s known velocity will play an important role. If the velocity is known, it will be fairly easier for them to estimate the number of iterations that will be needed in order to finish and deliver a set of features or functionality. In the event that there is no known velocity, they have to look for another valid way of making an approximation.
In an agile setting, facts and verifiable data will prevail over sentiments. Decisions are made by using real metrics and, if needed, negotiations. In fact, there are only two variables that can be adjusted are the scope of the project and the deadline. The other factors, such as the resources and the expected quality of the output, are more difficult to tweak, although not entirely impossible.
With the data gathered and organized, the team will then be more confident about setting a date to start the project, as well as the length of the iterations. Scheduling, timing, and assigning tasks will also be facilitated.
Continuous Release Planning
Agile projects move forward through continuous planning, and agile teams perform corrections along the way. These are aptly called “course corrections” where the release plan is allowed to respond to the various feedback it encounters along the way and, simultaneously, effect the necessary changes to address any issues or problems.
This is why, in agile release planning, it is not uncommon to see some deviations from the initial plan. The development team that started working on the project may not be intact at the end of the process because they realized a need for additional staff along the way. Course correction may also reveal that there are some staff members that are superfluous to the team and would be more needed in other projects.
The features that have been earlier tagged as priorities by customers may also change, and these will require revisions on the part of the development team. Therefore, in agile release planning, release plan revisions for each iteration are a given, provided they remain faithful to the original goals.
Naturally, it should also be noted that the revisions must be shared with the members of the team and the stakeholders each iteration. This is to keep them up to speed and assure them that you are still on track with the project.
Wrapping Up the Release Planning
An agile team with considerable experience in agile projects will definitely have little to no trouble delivering functionalities in every iteration. Those with less experience may take a bit longer, but they will still get there. This explains some variations on the number of iterations that will be required by agile teams to be able to deliver.
Ideally, in an agile world, there would no longer be a need for development teams to conduct activities such as system-wide integrations, bug fixing, and testing. However, this is not a hard and fast rule. Some teams still perform these tasks and even diligently complete user documentation. This will largely depend on factors such as the organizational structure, the complexity of the system and its deployment, and the practices and culture observed by the team and the organization it belongs to.