Regular releases reduce risk, increase value

“If you’re not embarrassed by the product when you launch, you’ve launched too late.” Reid Hoffman, founder LinkedIn

Years ago I worked for a software company supplying Vodafone, Verizon, Nokia, etc. The last thing those companies wanted was to update the software on their engineers PC every months, let alone every week!

I was remembering this episode when I was drafting what will be my next post (“But our users don’t want to change”) and thought it was worth saying something about how regular releases change the risk-reward equation.

When you only release occasionally there is a big incentive to “get it right” – to do everything that might be needed and to remove every defect whether you think those changes are needed or not. When you release occasionally second chances don’t happen for weeks or months. So you err on the side of caution and that caution costs.

Regularly releases changes that equation. Now second chances come around often, additions and fixes are easy. Now you can err on the side of less and that allows you to save time and money.

The ability to deliver regularly – every two weeks as a baseline, every day for high performing teams – is more important than the actual deliveries. Releasable is more important than released. The actual question of whether to release or not is ultimately a question for business representatives to decide.

But, being releasable on a very regular basis is an indicator of the teams technical ability and the innate quality of the thing being built. Teams which are always asking for “more time” may well have a low quality product (lots of bugs to fix) or have something to hide.

The fact that a team can, and hopefully do, release (to live) massively reduces the risk involved. When software is only released at the end – and usually only tested before that end – then risk is tail loaded. Having releasable – and especially released – software reduces risk. The risk is spread across the work.

Actually releasing early further reduces risk because every step in the process is exercised. There are no hidden deployment problems.

That offsets sunk-cost and combats commitment escalation. Because at any time the business stakeholders can say “game over” and walk away with a working product means that they are no longer held captive by the fear of sunk-costs, suppliers and career threatening failures.

It is also a nice side effect that releasing new functionality early – or just fixing bugs – increases the return on investment because benefits are delivered earlier and therefore start earning a return sooner.

Just because new functionality is completed and even released early does not mean users need to see it. Feature-toggles allows feature and changes to be hidden from users – or only enabled for specified users. Releasing changed software with no apparent change may look pointless but it actually reduces risk because the changes are out there.

That also means testing is simplified. Rather than running tests against software with many changes tests are run against software with few changes which makes changes more efficient even if the users don’t see it. And it removes the “we can’t roll back one fix” problem when one of 10 changes don’t pass.

Back with Vodafone engineers who don’t want their laptops updated: that was then, that was the days of CD installs. Today the cloud changes that, there is only one install to do, it isn’t such an inconvenience. So they could have the updates but with disruptive changes hidden. At the same time they could have non-disruptive changes, e.g. bug fixes.

In a few cases regular deliveries may not be the right answer. The key thing though is to change the default answer from “we only deliver occasionally (or at the end)” to “we deliver regularly (unless otherwise requested).”


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