6 min read

The Optimal Customer-Driven Release Frequency Formula


  • Why does understanding optimal release frequency matter?
    • Understanding and acting upon what drives an optimal release cycle ensures that the value your team delivers is ultimately absorbed and utilized. 
    • Delivering value at a pace that stakeholders are unable to utilize is only marginally better than not delivering that value at all, with the marginal value difference consisting of the hope that those stakeholders will utilize that value at some point in the future. 
  • The Optimal Customer-Driven Release Frequency Formula
    • Determining how frequently product and engineering teams release changes can be a contentious topic within organizations, but it should ultimately be based on two values, which are themselves multi-factorial.
    • The following formula optimizes for product success over the long term, and while release cycles can be based upon other factors, those factors are typically short term/single objective focused instead of process focused. 
    • At the highest level:
      • Optimal Release Frequency = (Average Time Required for Internal Stakeholders to Absorb Releases + Average Time Required for External Stakeholders/Customers to Absorb Releases)
        • Ex = 6 weeks for Internal + 6 weeks for External = 12 Week Release Cycles
        • Note - Sometimes these activities can be done in parallel.
      • Average Time Required for Internal/External Stakeholders to Absorb Releases are each composed of time required for [Training + Documentation Updates + Usage]
    • Full Formula 
      • Optimal Release Frequency = 
        • Internal Stakeholder Training + Internal Documentation Updates + Internal Usage
        • External Stakeholder Training + External Documentation Updates + External Usage
  • Incorrect Drivers of Release Cycles
    • Release cycles are often principally driven by a number of reasons other than the above, which are sub-optimal in a number of ways and explored further in the discussion section. This doesn’t mean the following factors shouldn’t be considered, simply that they should not be the key drivers over the long term.
      • Internal Process - Agile says we should release every 2/4/X weeks, so that is when we’ll release!
      • Publicity/Marketing/Sales / Event Driven - We have a quarterly/semi-annual/annual conference coming up, we need new features to talk about!
      • Staff - We have enough staff to release every 2/4/X weeks, so that is when we release!
      • Competitors - Our competitors sell their customers on new features every 2/4/X, so we’ll do that too!
  • Optimal Customer-Driven Release Cycle Cheat Sheet

Detailed Discussion

Far too often, product and engineering teams will ship features and releases at a pace that is inconsistent with the goal of delivering the maximum amount of value to both their internal and external stakeholders. This is surprising in the sense than good product teams are theoretically the “voice of the customer” and are responsible for understanding what solutions will deliver the most value.

Ultimately, the ideal release cycle delivers value at an organization-specific pace that internal and external stakeholders can maximally absorb and utilize. Analogous to the shift towards customer driven development, we focus here on shifting closer to customer-driven release frequency.

Just as it is critically important for product and engineering teams to identify the right problem and the right solution, it is equally important that those teams ensure customers and stakeholders are set up to successfully utilize those solutions upon delivery. If the release cycle is too rapid, customers and stakeholders will simultaneously be frustrated at the rate of change and their inability to learn how to leverage the new features. If the release cycle is too lethargic, customers will churn and stakeholders will yearn to play on an innovative team. 

Finding an ideal release cycle involves exploring a number of different drivers that are specific to your stakeholders and your customers, which are primarily driven by how quickly those stakeholders can utilize the value you create. These drivers converge on an optimal customer-driven release frequency formula. In addition, there are influencing factors that should be considered in determining your ideal release cycle, but should not be driving its pace over the long term.  Let’s explore the drivers that make up the optimal release frequency formula alongside each of the primary influencing factors. 

  • The Formula
    • Optimal Customer-Driven Release Frequency = Average Time Required for Internal Stakeholders to Absorb Releases + Average Time Required for External Stakeholders/Customers to Absorb Releases
    • Average Time Required for Internal/External Stakeholders to Absorb Releases are each composed of time required for [Training + Documentation Updates + Usage]
  • Drivers
    • Average Time Required for Internal Stakeholders to Absorb Releases is composed of:
        • Training - Is each internal department aware of the new changes and how to support customers?
        • Documentation Updates - Is each artifact used by the organization properly updated to reflect the new changes?
        • Usage - Are employees using or interacting with the new changes? Have they incorporated them into their workflows?
    • Average Time Required for External Stakeholders/Customers to Absorb Releases is composed of:
        • Training - Do customers understand how to use the new features? 
        • Documentation Updates - Is each artifact used by the customer properly updated to reflect the new changes?
        • Usage - Are customers using or interacting with the new changes? Have they incorporated them into their workflows?
  • Influencing Factors
    • Internal Process - Sticking to a release cadence or process that delivers change at an arbitrary, albeit consistent, time interval is largely unhelpful if customers and stakeholders can’t absorb the delivered rate of change. Many teams marshal continuous delivery or two week release cycles as proof that they are delivering significant value to the business without discussing or disclosing how much of what was shipped is actually being utilized. Shipped Value != Absorbed Value.
    • Publicity/Marketing/Sales / Event Driven - There is absolutely no product and engineering team on earth that can avoid the occasional release that is scheduled principally around a specific event or client. There will be big clients your company needs to win and features built specifically for tradeshows. It is important to accept that these situations will occur, understand that these events are exceptions to your ideal release cycle, and explain to stakeholders why these occasions are in fact exceptions to the optimal customer-driven release cycle your team has so carefully determined. 
    • Staff / Empire Building - The size of the product and engineering organization can be a factor when it is too large or over-resourced relative to the products it owns. As discussed previously in Empire Building, product and engineering teams will grow over time (Great!), but the products they are responsible for do not necessarily need to grow or change at a similar rate. In an ideal world, those product and engineering resources are reassigned to new products. In the real world, those resources stay put and justify their existence by continuing to release new features that are unnecessary at worst and marginally helpful at best. In this case, the optimal release cycle has likely shifted and product/engineering resources must shift as well. 
    • Competitors - As software consumers have become more aware of the SaaS business model, rate of value delivery and agile development have become points of differentiation in the sales process. This is unlikely to change at any point in the future as it would require massive customer re-education by sales teams that are incentivized to do precisely the opposite. It is your responsibility as the product and engineering team to educate stakeholders on the rationale behind your release frequency and the data that it incorporates. Do not assume that even though a 6 month release cycle is ideal for your customers that those same customers will automatically admit to that fact or appreciate your rationale. 

Examples & Suggestions

While your release cycle will be driven by the values specific to your customers and stakeholders, there are several rules of thumb that can be helpful, all subsequently discussed as well as summarized in the diagram below.

Optimal Customer-Driven Release Formula
  • Product Complexity - As product complexity increases, the length of your release cycle will likely naturally increase. This is primarily due to the multiplicative factor of product complexity, in that for each required change management activity typically required for a new release (Training, Documentation, Usage Monitoring), each of those activities will increase in proportion to the complexity of the product. An example of this can be seen in comparing the Uber application to Facebook - both are consumer facing applications, but Uber has a significantly narrower consumer facing scope than Facebook, which allows more frequent changes around that scope.
  • Customer/Stakeholder Dedication to Product - Release cycles can be shortened if you have a fanatically dedicated customer base, either due to a natural monopoly or the criticality of your software to your customer’s tasks. Dedication matters because it will increase the rate at which customers can and want to utilize the changes that your team ships. A great example of this is Adobe, whose products are all mission critical to the media production industry and are natural monopolies in their space. 
  • Customer/Stakeholder Industry Regulation - If your industry is heavily regulated, there may be a maximum rate of change that your customers can legally or logistically absorb. This is nearly zero for consumer facing applications whereas it tends towards infinity for nuclear power plant operating systems. This point is less a commentary on whether the regulation is justified or not, and more focused on determining what effect it will have on your release cycle. 
  • Dedicated Change Management Resources - If your company has an appreciation for change management and appropriately staffs training/documentation resources, it may be possible to dramatically shorten your release cycles. For example, if your customer success team is running a webinar on a regular basis to educate customers on upcoming and already released features, your organization can realistically ship change at a much faster pace than if change management is primarily handled by sending out educational emails that customers and stakeholders don’t read. 

The main objective is to ensure that the value that you ship is approximately equal to the value utilized by customers and stakeholders. If it isn’t, resources are being allocated in a sub-optimal fashion, and your team should consider changes to one or more of the variables discussed above.