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A Tactical Guide to Release Management

The release management lifecycle, in the context of product management, encompasses planning, scheduling, controlling, testing, and more.

Ever tried to direct a flash mob without telling anyone where or when? That's what neglecting release management feels like. 

It's the fine art of coordinating all the pieces behind the scenes to ensure that when you introduce a change, it goes off without a hitch.

Now, here’s the real crux of the matter: controlling and communicating this process. It’s not just about ensuring everything works; it’s about keeping everyone in the loop. 

In the world of release management, poor communication can lead to disastrous outcomes: missed deadlines, frustrated clients, and a tarnished reputation. 

This guide will cover the release management lifecycle, focusing on what’s most relevant for product managers and other stakeholders involved in product development. 

What is release management? 

Release management is the process of planning, designing, scheduling, deploying, and controlling the release of new features, updates, and the iterative process. It’s primarily used in the context of software products (i.e. managing the software development life cycle and releases). Still, many of the same concepts can apply to releasing any product. 

Release management is not the same as product launch management. Software release management is a more technical process, referring to development, testing, and deployment of changes. It’s chiefly focused on how changes flow through internal pre-production environments to lead to successful releases. 

On the other hand, product launch management is more of a business process (introducing the product to intended audiences, developing marketing materials, etc.) and is more external-facing. 

In software, products undergo frequent updates, patches, and expansions. Even major players with complex platforms deploy code at a remarkable rate. Back in 2014, Amazon deployed its code an astounding 136,000 times per day! Unbelievable. 

Interestingly, end-users may remain oblivious to these releases, not even batting an eye. But when launching a product, informing your audience becomes the holy grail. Release management may not be the star of the show, but it undeniably steals the spotlight when it comes to product quality, stability, and overall user experience.

Who is involved in release management? 

Release management should almost always be a cross-function process involving stakeholders from the following roles:

  • Release Manager: Manages release schedules, works with IT teams to implement, conducts scope planning, and communicates with business stakeholders.
  • Product Development: Provides guidance on desired features, aligns stakeholders from product development and non-technical teams, and gathers feedback from end users.
  • Product Manager: Ensures the features align with user needs and release timelines.
  • IT Support/QA: Oversees deployment, tests deployments, and patches errors.
  • Product Marketing Manager: Leads the Go-to-Market process, prepares the market, coordinates communications and positioning, and bridges understanding between internal teams and external users about upcoming changes.

Aligning teams is key in release management. Imagine a world where teams have a supercharged tool to track changes, assign tasks, and communicate effortlessly with stakeholders. 

Enter Ignition, a centralized system for the entire release management workflow that makes development workflows smoother. Even non-techies go, "Wow, this is easy!" 

But wait, there's more. Ignition automates internal comms, keeping executive teams in the loop and syncing with external software solutions. And guess what? The whole team can tap into its AI-powered chatbot for quick answers. 

For larger projects, a dedicated release manager is a game-changer. They become the go-to person, the mastermind behind the release flow. And for smaller companies, product managers and product marketing managers step up. Together, they coordinate the magic.

Key elements of effective release management 

Release management workflows can vary by firm size, industry, and product offerings — but you should consider these key elements in any release management process.

What Is Release Management Infographic

Strategic thinking in the release management process 

A well-oiled release management process thrives on systematic strategy development. Think of it as the brain behind the brilliance. It demands upfront effort to build robust systems to guide your product's journey. And hey, don't forget the ongoing updates to keep up with feedback, performance, and those fancy KPIs. 

So, what's the secret recipe for a strategic release management system, you ask? Buckle up; here are the key components.

Planning and coordination: Developing a top-down strategy, complete with actionable release plans, release activities, and cross-functional coordination. You’ll need to decide what project management style to use and which tools you need for agile development and task management. This process should involve input from a wide variety of stakeholders.

Environment management: Creating (or optimizing) the software environment to enable efficient and safe release. This often includes establishing testing and staging environments and a broad strategy for balancing resource allocation between all existing projects and software environments. 

Process automation: Strategizing on which, if any, processes may be automated. This may include identifying and procuring release management tools, creating repeatable automation workflows, and stress-testing automation flows.

Version control: Establishing a centralized source control system to track and manage changes to code.

Rollback plan: Establishing a clear strategy for version rollbacks, should they become necessary. This may include creating the technical framework for rollbacks and assigning duties (and permissions) to the appropriate teams. 

Change management: Standardizing the methods teams will use to manage change. This may involve strategic thinking on how to help reduce change-related incidents.

Risk management: Strategizing release risk management protocols can involve everything from worst-case-scenario response planning to automated rollback processes.

Testing methodology: Creating a clear methodology for iterative testing protocols. This may include identifying KPIs specific to your project, identifying tools or workflows to standardize and measure release performance, and establishing clear priority metrics within internal systems. 

Monitor & review process: Developing strategy for internal monitoring and review protocols. This may include identifying which stakeholders to involve and report to and toolset and workflow optimization efforts. 

Feedback implementation: Building a system to collect, review, and implement user and stakeholder feedback. This should also include methods for prioritizing the most impactful feedback. 

Go-to-Market strategy: Identifying releases that necessitate GTM planning and involving the necessary stakeholders to implement those strategies. Not all releases require GTM efforts, but companies can benefit from involving product marketing roles in those that do. 

With Ignition, fusing release management with GTM strategy and execution is easier than ever. Ignition offers a robust framework to build GTM plans and enables stakeholders to collaborate and contribute dynamically. From research to build to launch, Ignition is your GTM ops platform. 

Of course, a well-crafted strategy goes nowhere without proper execution. So, what tactical steps can teams take to improve release management processes? 

Tactical steps to own outcomes in release management 

Beyond strategic thinking, release management's tactical decisions and day-to-day logistics can greatly impact project outcomes. 

Did you know that companies with optimized release management workflows have been shown to experience a significant reduction in errors? Automated release management can prevent costly mistakes, with the average cost of a data breach in 2021 reported to be $4.24 million

Here are some critical steps to optimize your company's release management workflows

Define clear roles and responsibilities

Teams should start by assembling the dream team (release managers, developers, QA testers, product owners, operations managers, etc.), then take steps to define responsibilities and priorities for each team member clearly. 

A responsibility assignment matrix (RACI matrix) is a great place to start. Identifying who does what and who doesn’t in each step of the release process will help clarify and prevent oversights. 

Establish a release calendar

Establish a detailed release calendar to keep your team in sync and your projects on track. This allows you to define strategic release windows — for instance, by scheduling software releases during low usage times of day to minimize user disruption. 

Tools like Ignition can help teams establish clear roadmaps, coordinate responsibilities, document and track metrics, and ultimately stick more closely to release calendars. 

Establishing a consistent release cadence, be it weekly, monthly, or any other time frame relevant to your product, can also be helpful. This can help teams establish a repeatable workflow cadence and help users know when to expect releases, patches, and new features to explore. 

Prioritize testing

Pre-release testing, integration testing, and manual testing are vital components of release management. Teams would do well to prioritize and allocate adequate resources to testing efforts. 

Many testing protocols can be automated. Unit tests, integration tests, and end-to-end tests can run automatically. But don’t forget the human touch. Dedicated QA team members or external testers can bring some soul to the process and provide valuable insights that metrics-focused automated testing can miss. 

Have a clear rollback procedure

When things don't go as planned, you need a backup plan. Establishing a clear rollback procedure with documentation and clearly defined protocols can help reduce stress and user disruptions when problems arise.

It starts with robust backup systems. Before each release, teams should ensure that databases and all critical data are backed up. Rollback plans should be clear, concise, and easy to implement quickly should a release cause significant issues on launch. For this, the process needs to be easily accessible and well communicated.

Collaborate and communicate 

Keep the beat going by prioritizing communication and collaboration. Regular check-ins with key stakeholders will keep the rhythm alive, and tools like Ignition will keep everyone in sync. Ignition features tailored automated comms to keep stakeholders in the loop with the vitals (informed, not overwhelmed) and provides a source of truth that anybody can access.

Document everything

It may seem mundane, but documenting is crucial for a smooth performance. Document internal procedures, including release steps, test plans, rollback procedures, and post-release validation steps. And ensure documents are routinely updated to reflect changes. Proper documentation reduces information siloes and can help bolster business continuity by enabling a wider internal group.

Teams should also ensure documentation is openly available to all relevant stakeholders whenever needed. At Ignition, we use AI to help anybody query existing documents and extract the information they need in minutes without having to trawl through text.

We’ve covered strategic thinking and tactical steps to take toward a more efficient release management workflow. Now, how should teams measure their success? 

Important release management metrics to monitor and report regularly 

Tracking metrics allows teams to monitor performance, identify weak points, and refine workflows for better outcomes in the future. 

Ignition screenshot ross-team retrospective

Dozens of metrics could be relevant to release management, but the following metrics should be top-of-mind.

  • Release frequency: How often a release is fully deployed to paying customers.  
  • Release success rate: The percentage of releases that are deployed on schedule. 
  • Release lead time: The time between accepting a work item/change/update and implementing the change (also called Time to Value). 
  • Release rollback rate: The percentage of releases rolled back due to unstable deployments, glitches, or customer complaints. 
  • Release satisfaction score: The measured satisfaction score of end users who have used the post-release iteration of your product, usually based on customer feedback and survey results.
  • Deployment duration: The time it takes to execute a manual deployment.

Identifying the metrics most important to your specific industry, product, and audience is also essential. Minimizing downtime will likely be a top priority for an integral digital infrastructure service. For a consumer SaaS with lots of competition, customer satisfaction scores may be paramount. 

Bringing it together, success in the release management process necessitates clear strategy, careful execution, and ongoing performance monitoring. Because release management is continuous, teams should build repeatable workflows and systems around these critical components. 

Building a system for future release cycles 

To level up your internal release management system, it’s important to document successes and failures and build a repeatable process for future release cycles. 

Track release performance over time using the metrics and KPIs your team deems relevant. Identify weaknesses and refine processes to align with overall goals and improve future release processes. 

Ensure everyone on the team has the opportunity to provide feedback, and don’t forget about the importance of customer data and collected user feedback. Sending out routine surveys may seem mundane, but it’s one of the best ways to identify customer pain points to address in future releases. 

Drive release management success with Ignition 

Ignition is the #1 tool to manage the entire go-to-market process from end to end. Ignition can help automate key workflows, like analyzing customer feedback and assigning engineering tasks. Most importantly, it serves as a centralized source of truth for the entire product lifecycle, combining product roadmaps, task management, research, insights, release notes, and much more.

Ignition has everything you need to align all stakeholders and own your release process. See Ignition in action today