Agile Release Planning Best Practices For Product Managers

Agile Release Planning Best Practices For Product Managers cover

What is agile release planning? What are its best practices? How can product managers leverage them to build successful products?

These are just a handful of the questions we discuss in the article. Want to learn more?

Dive in!


  • Agile release planning breaks the project scope into smaller chunks and prioritizes their delivery over a number of iterations.
  • Agile release planning allows teams to deliver value in less time and collect user feedback while they are still working on the product.
  • A product roadmap is a general long-term plan of how to deliver on the product vision whereas an agile release plan focuses on short iterations, often called sprints, and are more detailed.
  • The whole agile team should take part in release planning but the product owner is accountable for the final plan.
  • Release planning should start by defining the product vision and setting product goals to realize it.
  • The next step involves reviewing the backlog to align it with the goals.
  • In step 3, the team assigns story points to backlog items and divides them into sprints based on the team’s velocity.
  • Finally, it’s necessary to review and amend the release plan based on customer feedback and stakeholder input.

Agile release planning best practices include:

  1. Always set overall product goals to guide the process.
  2. Prioritize backlog items to deliver benefits not features.
  3. Aim to deliver working functionality at the end of each sprint.
  4. Set flexible release dates to avoid unnecessary pressure or disappointment.
  5. Work in short sprints and set realistic sprint goals.
  6. Hold regular sprint planning meetings to prioritize the key deliverables.
  7. Clearly define the responsibilities of agile team members, especially when transitioning from Waterfall development.
  8. Use in-app messages and release emails to let your users know about new releases.
  9. Collect user feedback to inform future sprints.
  10. Take part in regular user interviews to validate product ideas and collect qualitative feedback.
  11. Track user behavior in-app to identify the most valuable features and iterate on them.
  12. Don’t be shy when it comes to sunsetting obsolete features with low usage rates.
  • Want to know how Userpilot can help you plan your releases? Book a demo!

What is agile release planning?

Agile release planning is the process of breaking down the project scope into smaller chunks and prioritizing their delivery.

Agile teams work in short cycles called iterations and sprints. At the end of each sprint, which could be 2-4 weeks long, they aim to deliver working features.

This is different from traditional waterfall project management, where software development happens over a long period in large batches.

Agile release planning. Source: Maruti Techlabs.
Agile release planning. Source: Maruti Techlabs.

Why is agile release planning important for product managers?

Agile is used to build SaaS products these days and product managers need to have a good grasp of how it works.

Incremental releases mean you can add more value to the product frequently. As soon as you release new features, you can collect user feedback and iterate on them to improve them further.

This ensures that you build a product that is aligned not only with product vision but also with user needs.

The difference between the release plan and the product roadmap

The key difference between the release plan and the product roadmap is the scope.

Release planning focuses on one iteration or sprint at a time. Release plans tell the development team what they need to be working on in the nearest future. Crucially, release plans are based on the product roadmap.

The product roadmap looks much further ahead. It’s a document that translates the product vision into specific features and functionality. However, it’s much more general and often written for the benefit of the stakeholders rather than the dev team.

Who is responsible for the agile release planning process

The release planning process is best left to the agile or scrum team members. That’s because they are in a better position to decide what needs to be done and estimate how much effort it requires.

However, it’s the product owner who runs the release planning meeting and makes the final decisions.

How to build an agile release plan in four steps

We can break down the agile release planning process into four main steps.

1. Start with the product vision and set goals

Agile release planning starts with the product vision. That’s what sets the direction for the whole development process.

A robust product vision prioritizes the needs of users, is aligned with the company vision and mission, and inspires the product team.

More importantly, it drives product strategy and allows effective goal setting.

How do you set effective product goals?

There are different frameworks that can help you with that like SMART, OKR, or Lock and Latham’s Goal Setting Theory. While each of them is slightly different, there are some common themes in all of them. Your product goals should be:

  • clear to understand and detailed
  • not overly complicated
  • achievable within a specific time frame
  • challenging

Make sure to involve your key internal and external stakeholders in the goal-setting process to ensure they are aligned with their expectations and needs.

Goal-setting is an important part of Agile release planning
Goal-setting is an important part of Agile release planning.

2. Review, expand and prioritize the product backlog

Once you have your goals, it’s time to review your backlog so that it’s in line with your goals.

This normally means adding new backlog items and prioritizing those that are essential to achieving the goals. It’s important for the whole team to be involved in the process so that they understand the rationale behind different items and share ownership of them.

Agile teams use different prioritization techniques, like:

  • Cost of Delay – assessing how much it would cost to delay the completion of the item.
  • Priority Poker – team members use cards to score each item’s priority anonymously.
  • 100 Dollar Test – each team member gets $100 and they spend it on the items which they think are the most urgent.

3. Determine the velocity and define sprints

Next, we divide the prioritized backlog items into sprints. That’s when the actual release plans are created.

To plan your sprints accurately, you need to establish your team’s velocity. This is the metric of how quickly your team can complete backlog items, and it’s usually expressed in story points.

Story points are a relative measure of the effort required to complete a task. The word relative is the key here. While it’s difficult to estimate accurately how much time a task will take, it’s much easier to compare the effort needed to complete two tasks.

That’s why Agile teams are encouraged to use relative weighting to assign story points to each backlog item.

How does it work?

You start by choosing the item that you think requires the least effort and assign it a value of 3 story points. This becomes the benchmark.

Next, you assign story points to other items by comparing them to the benchmark. So a task that is twice as big as the benchmark one, will get 6.

It’s a good practice to use the average velocity from the last three iterations when planning sprints. The longer you work together, the easier it’s to determine your velocity and how much work you can do.

4. Improve and update

As you’re working to implement your release plans, take full advantage of the flexibility that Agile gives you and adjust them based on the feedback that you receive.

The changes to release plans may be necessary because of:

  • Changes in customer needs.
  • Changing competitive landscape (for example, a competitor releasing a feature).
  • Changes in business goals.
  • Technical debt.
  • Improved team efficiency and higher velocity, and more accurate estimating.
Use feedback and data to update release plans
Use feedback and data to update release plans.

Agile release planning best practices

Let’s look at some bullet-proof strategies and tips that will help you nail your agile release planning.

Never skip the goals and expectations part

As mentioned, goal-setting is essential for release planning because it guides the team at subsequent stages.

If you miss this stage, your team won’t be able to prioritize the backlog items effectively.

Pair goals with features and benefits

When prioritizing the items for each release, look at the benefits you want to deliver to your customers, and not the features.

Only when you know where the most value will come from, you can start looking at the functionality that will help you deliver it.

Planning your releases around features, on the other hand, can send your team down the feature fallacy trap and turn your company into a feature factory.

Plan to release value in each sprint

One of the ideas behind Agile or Scrum release planning is that at the end of each iteration, you should release something that adds value to the product. It may not be much but it needs to be tangible and improve user experience.

To be able to do that, break down some of your user stories into smaller ones so that they can be completed in a single sprint. Once they are out, you can iterate on them, and add additional functionality in future releases.

Be flexible with your release date

There are so many variables involved in software development that it’s nearly impossible to determine when the increment will be ready to release. That’s why don’t commit to specific release dates.

Doing so can create unhealthy pressure on the team and result in corner-cutting. And not delivering on time may undermine customer and stakeholder confidence.

Keep sprints short and achievable

Shorter sprints mean that you can deliver new value to customers more quickly. What’s more, you can start collecting feedback on the new functionality sooner.

That’s if you manage to complete the sprint goal. To increase your chances of delivering on time, stay on the side of caution and don’t overcommit. Make sprint goals achievable and add value in small increments over a number of iterations.

Have regular sprint planning meetings

Each sprint should start with a planning meeting.

This is the stage when the team sets the priorities and objectives for the sprint. This is informed by the customer feedback from the sprint demo and sprint retrospective which are the last two events in a sprint.

In other words, the team needs to get together regularly and use the empirical data from previous iterations to adjust their course for the subsequent ones.

Agile Release Planning Best Practices: have regular sprint planning meetings
Agile Release Planning Best Practices: have regular sprint planning meetings.

Define roles in your team

Who’s on your agile team will depend on your organization and the framework you use.

For example, in Scrum, the most popular Agile framework, there are no project managers. Instead, there is a scrum master, who’s a servant leader. Their job is to remove roadblocks for the team.

The other important role is the product owner. They act as the voice of the customer and make key prioritization decisions. In many organizations, it’s the product manager who acts as a product owner.

To avoid conflicts and misunderstandings, make sure you define the responsibilities for each of the roles. This is particularly important if you’re transitioning from the waterfall model where the project managers often do parts of the jobs of both the scrum master and product owner.

Scrum team roles
Scrum team roles. Source: Scaled Agile, Inc.

Announce new features to drive adoption

Once you release new features, make sure your users know about them. Otherwise, their adoption may be low.

Who’s responsible for writing the announcements and release notes depends on the size of the team. It’s normally the job of the product manager or the product marketing manager.

It’s good practice to use a variety of channels to announce new features. For active users, in-app messages like modals or banners work best.

Banner announcing new features
Banner announcing new features.

Emails, on the other hand, may be the only way to reach churned or inactive users.

Agile Release Planning Best Practices: use email to announce updates
Use emails to announce updates to churned users.

Collect user feedback and act on it

As your key priority should be satisfying user needs, make sure to collect feedback on how well you’re doing and use it to guide work in the following sprints.

It’s dead easy to collect user feedback with in-app surveys these days. With a decent adoption platform, you should also be able to target specific user segments to make the feedback relevant.

How to collect user feedback.
How to collect user feedback.

Focus on collecting qualitative feedback as this is where most valuable insights come from.

Hold regular user discovery interviews

User interviews are another great way to collect qualitative user feedback. They are particularly useful during user and product discovery before the launch.

You can use them to validate ideas and test prototypes before you commit to product and feature development. The information you collect will be invaluable when you finally start building the solution.

Hold regular planning meetings to test assumptions.

Track product usage data to understand what brings value

Tracking user behavior in the product is necessary to validate what you learned from surveys and interviews and gives product managers a complete picture.

For example, it helps to identify which feature drives the most value for your customers. Once you know this, you can prioritize the incremental development of these features.

Agile release planning: track product usage
Agile release planning: track product usage.

Plan to remove features too

Usage data can also tell you which features you should demote or even sunset.

If your users don’t engage with the feature, it may mean it’s of little value. Sometimes, building a new feature that consolidates the functionality of a few existing features is a better call, so there’s no point in supporting them anymore.

Agile release planning: plan to sunset features.


Agile release planning enables teams to deliver new value to the customer sooner than traditional software development approaches. Incremental development gives them the opportunity to use customer feedback and usage data to make product decisions.

If you’d like to see how Userpilot can help you collect data to inform your release plans, book a demo!

previous post next post

Leave a comment