What are change management and release management in ITIL?

Fast-growing organizations constantly embrace new technology. It is how you ensure efficient operations, keep up with customer needs, and stay competitive. For IT teams to support and drive business value, you need to release new solutions and functionality smoothly — minimizing risk and disruptions.

When planning releases, many IT teams refer to the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL). It is a comprehensive framework of best practices for achieving IT-business alignment. And it offers clear standards for release management and change management.

Whether or not your organization follows ITIL, the framework provides practical guidance for planning and managing IT services. If you are looking to adopt ITIL in your organization or even want to increase job prospects, you might consider becoming ITIL-certified. Even if you do not take a certification course, it can be useful to understand how ITIL defines IT service strategy, design, and operations. ITIL can help teams deliver IT services on schedule and better meet the needs of internal users and customers alike.

Change management vs. release management in ITIL

Within ITIL, change management is defined as an addition, modification, or removal of anything that could have an effect on IT services. ITIL distinguishes between three types of changes: standard (pre-authorized, low-risk), emergency (immediate, such as to resolve a major incident), and normal (all other changes). Change management teams are responsible for minimizing the risk and impact to business operations of any technology changes that occur.

A release is a rollout of new or modified software. ITIL defines release management teams as the practitioners that build, test, and schedule releases to the production environment — before deployment. A great release management process ensures that you release new functionality safely and effectively. And it standardizes how you transfer knowledge from the development team to the teams responsible for supporting the new solutions.

Change management and release management are closely related. Change management provides input to release management and release management delivers the output. But each has nuances and specifications. A good way to think of the differences is to remember that change management is strategic and release management is operational.

Here is a closer look at how change management and release management line up:

Change management

Release management


Procedures for managing change requests to minimize the business impact of changes

The act of building, testing, and releasing changes


Pre- and post-deployment

All deployment activities


Quality control plan, approvals

Package of approved changes


Reflect, review, improve

Version control

How to successfully plan and manage a release

Change management and release management must work in concert to be effective. For a change manager to determine an effective plan for mitigating risk and disruption, it is important that they incorporate input from those who are doing the actual deployment.

Start by clarifying the roles and responsibilities of the two teams. Then make sure that both teams share the necessary information — such as process guidelines and the details of the development request. From there, the change manager can implement the pre- and post-deployment release plan. Successful change management plans include:

  • Defined goals and KPIs

  • List of stakeholder approvals required

  • Milestones and dependencies

  • Work broken down into smaller, less risky tasks

  • Testing criteria

  • Communications and training plans

Once the change management plan is in place, the release manager can set the release schedule, begin planning, and initiate development. When clearly defined, release management provides a bridge between the teams that develop new functionality and the teams that support it. So you can continue to provide real value to end users — frequent updates, ongoing support, and minimal disruption to their day-to-day work.

Methodologies like agile development, continuous delivery, and DevOps have shortened time-to-market and time-to-value — making effective release management even more important. These methodologies are applied to increasingly complex platforms. This necessitates rigorous planning and robust communication between change management and release management teams.

Working together, change management and release management create an information flow that ultimately results in better software and more satisfied customers.

Where does release management fit into IT plans?

An IT plan gives the big picture of what you will achieve in the next quarter, year, or beyond — including the high-level initiatives or big themes of work that will help you reach your goals. Each initiative typically involves multiple releases. And each release provides new features and functionality that you have prioritized in your plan. An IT manager oversees the entire plan — in larger organizations, a separate release manager may be responsible for planning and overseeing the releases.

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