Product Release Process & Tiering

There is often a tension between developers and GTM (Go To Market) teams. Developers want to constantly commit, integrate, and deploy. GTM teams want to absorb new capabilities systematically and plan communications, education, and campaigns around them. The problem with the developers’ preference is that customers and GTM teams often cannot productively absorb a continuous release cycle.

Customers feel the burdens of rapidly evolving products at multiple levels. These include IT security, user support, training, and more. Unexpected releases can cause customers to become dissatisfied with the software provider. Within the software provider company, products exist within a broader ecosystem of marketing, sales, and customer experience processes or organizations. GTM and other teams can’t handle constant releases, which lead to cognitive overload, frustration, and inefficiency.

To boost the effectiveness of each of these functions and maximize ROI, product release processes need to be coordinated and synchronized. Where possible, they must be linked to current business objectives and strategic themes. Let’s review some necessary actions that companies should consider taking.

Principles and Point of View

Tier features according to impact

First, developers should evaluate and tier product features according to their impact to the customer. They should then plan product releases accordingly, with no more than three customer-facing releases per quarter to keep from overwhelming your users.

Among these three releases, one should be a major release while the others are more minor. Typically, this means only one large product launch each quarter, likely in the first month when GTM teams have more capacity. This allows them to rally behind the few larger feature releases and focus on planning for marketing communications and sales enablement, as well as getting customer success teams trained and ready to help launch the new features.

Next, plan for a set of two smaller releases during the remainder of the quarter, typically including maintenance or moderate functionality improvements. The development team may also release small, “behind-the-scenes” changes that do not fundamentally alter workflows or functionality or top priority (P0 or P1) quality issue fixes.

Avoid any significant product launches or releases during months when customers or the GTM team are less able to absorb the changes. Typically the third month of the quarter is the worst time for major releases since they can interfere with the customer’s own critical processes or internal sales and renewal processes.

Below is an example of effective tiering of features with their recommended release frequency, timing, and communications plan.

  • Tier 1: Scheduled major releases tied to strategic themes
    • Feature Tier Description
      • Major functionality or high-complexity release
      • Could include a new module or a major revision of existing workflow providing significant new capability
      • Requires significant learning / investment on part of the customer
      • Scheduled service downtime generally acceptable
    • Release Frequency & Timing
      • Major release likely in the first month of the quarter
    • Communications Plan
      • In-platform notification
      • Support center / portal
      • Release email
      • Customer webinar
      • Pre-launch marketing comms
      • Sales enablement
  • Tier 2: Scheduled minor releases tied to simple features / feature enhancements
    • Feature Tier Description
      • Core product functionality that applies to all users (BUT simple / no “enablement- required” features)
      • Minor admin-facing changes or improvements to existing functionality
      • P2+ bug fixes (given more time for hardening and regression testing)
      • Scheduled downtime typically not acceptable
    • Release Frequency & Timing
      • Minor releases scheduled in a monthly cadence (during months other than Tier 1 releases)
    • Communications Plan
      • In-platform notification
      • Support center / portal
      • Release email
      • Pre-launch
      • Marketing comms may be needed for some new features
  • Tier 3: Bug fixes, security fixes and performance enhancements
    • Feature Tier Description
      • Small “behind the scenes” changes that enhance the user experience but do not fundamentally introduce new changes to workflows or functionality
      • P0 / P1 bug fixes and quality issue resolution given urgency
      • Scheduled downtime typically not acceptable
    • Release Frequency & Timing
      • Continuous / as needed
    • Communications Plan
      • In-platform notification
      • Support center / portal

Bundle related features

Developers can bundle related features together for customer release scheduling and GTM strategy including pricing. This may help customer-facing internal teams work more efficiently.

Bundling related features for a more impactful release will also help with market positioning via analyst briefings, PR announcements and strategic partnerships. Additionally, this strategy can help create a more logically complete feature set in the eyes of the customer, making it easier for them to take in. It can even inform pricing strategy, allowing for better monetization of upsell features.

Feature flags

Next, enable the process technically with a feature flag capability. Breaking the one to one relationship between developer commitments and customer-facing launch processes is essential to coordinating and synchronizing product release processes.

Feature flags can allow the development team to release features continuously or regularly without revealing those features to the customer base until the GTM team and customer success team are ready to support them. They are also very helpful for selective pricing and packaging of features along with migrating existing customers from a legacy version of the product.

Cultural change management

It’s important to be mindful of cultural changes. Tiering and bundling features requires building a new muscle within engineering and product organizations. This will likely require training on how to identify which features qualify as strategic features versus product enhancements, i.e., candidates for Tier 1 vs Tier 2 vs Tier 3 releases.

The product team also needs executive support to focus on driving the highest strategic impact with Tier 1 releases, while balancing customer pressures for incremental feature enhancements that are Tier 2 release candidates.

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