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The Remarkably Simple Release Calendar: Product Operations In Practice

Over the past few weeks I’ve been diving into what a strategic partner looks like and how to advance your strategic thinking. Today I wanted to take the conversation a bit more tactical to show how a strategy and a tactic interact. This type of case study is a bit different for me. I’d love to know if you want to see more content like this or not.

“When is the next release coming out?” 

“What’s in the next release?” 

“Was a change just shipped to my customers? What was it?” 

I’ve gotten these questions before. You probably have too. Whether these are coming from marketing, sales, customer support, or finance, everyone wants to know what’s shipping and when. 

Then there’s the most common question of them all: 

“What’s on the roadmap?” 

If I had a nickel for every time I was asked this question….I’d have a lot of nickels. And for many teams, especially on the go-to-market side, the roadmap question is actually asking about visibility into release plans. Turns out this is a remarkably common issue.

Communication strategies

I’ve talked to (and been on) so many teams that have struggled with communicating the right release information to all the right teams. Some want high-level summaries, others need detailed screenshots of every change. 

I interviewed two women whose product ops teams got it right. Alice Jin was part of the product ops team at Paper and Julia Bansemer was at Foodics. 

Alice highlighted that part of her strategy was increasing trust in the product team and product process. When you get communication strategy wrong, it erodes trust across product and the cross-departmental teams. They feel like product is setting them up to fail and struggle to find ways to work around it. Status update meetings abound. Product managers get constant messages and emails asking for status updates. Communication becomes a time sink for too many people. 

Julia described what it was like before the release calendar came out:

We had the feeling that product on this side and sales on the other side were talking two different languages, were two completely different worlds, and how do you bring them closer together?  

When you get this critical piece of communication right, you enable everyone to do their jobs better. Everyone moves a little faster. Julia’s shared with me the impact of a good release calendar: 

Colleagues from sales were so happy because they felt included and thought of. It also kind of dissolved the silo between product and all other teams. For us at least, [understanding releases] was the biggest clash between product and sales.  

There are a few things that these release calendars did so well: 

1. They went to where their customers were already hanging out 

2. They provided lightweight information with links to deep-dive as much as needed 

3. They were easy to administer and keep updated

Two companies, the same release calendar

The solution was dead simple: a shared Google calendar. Both Alice and Julia shared that the biggest motivator was going where the sales team already was. Every sales person started the day by looking at their calendar. So instead of another Slack bulletin or email newsletter (Julia tried both), a simple calendar event marking a release was unobtrusive but noticed. 

Alice included a few things in the calendar event itself: whether it was a beta or a general release, which customers were affected by the beta, and a link out to a Notion page with a one-pager and links to all the details. On Julia’s side, it was the name of the release, a link out to the Release Hub in Notion, a description of what was new, and a link to the Slack summary of the release. 

If a release changed, they could move the date. Alice set hers up as a shared calendar, which also gave coworkers the option to sign up for email notifications when events changed. Julia invited everyone to the event, and managed taking people on and off the invite as needed. 

For both teams, the product ops manager that worked most closely with the product area for that particular release kept the calendar and documentation updated.

Consistency and transparency build trust

As for advice for anyone looking to do this themselves, both Alice and Julia agreed that you should focus on consistency and transparency. 

It was very important that the calendar event was always up-to-date. Everyone had to trust this as the right information so they didn’t go asking anyone for the latest update. It had to be used for every release that met the criteria, with the same information every time. In other words: it had to be reliable. 

Because the solution was simple, it was easier to be consistent. The only real risk was forgetting to make the update when something changed. Because it linked out to the full documentation, it was easy to remain transparent and get everyone the depth of information they needed. 

And the more consistent and transparent the team was, the more everyone else learned to trust them and trust the process. This freed up product managers’ time to focus more on understanding their users and business value they could deliver.

Tactics emerging from strategy

I’m not advocating that everyone start doing all stakeholder communication (or even release calendars) via a shared calendar. But this story is important because it highlights that simple solutions using the tools you already have can be very effective. 

On top of that, it shows the connection between a strategic goal and a tactical solution. Both of them wanted strategically to improve coordination between sales and product. From a strategic standpoint, prioritizing this issue helped them because solving the coordination challenge also freed up product managers’ time. It slowed down the flood of messages each PM was getting around who was responsible for what release and requests for updates and more detail. Freeing up PM time from this task helped their entire product team become more effective. 

This is the power of product ops. A small investment, from one team member, is able to make two departments more effective. Operations is a space where one person’s actions can lead to exponential impact. In my upcoming cohort of the Product Ops Impact Accelerator, we’ll be talking about how you can think strategically to shape what you tackle on your roadmap. You’ll be able to ask your peers in the cohort how they tackled particular challenges so that you can get a variety of ideas on how to create meaningful change in your organization. I’d love to have you join us.