Bookend Your Runbooks for Maximum Clarity

A runbook describes how to change the world from the status quo to a desired goal. But, it can be hard to know what to include. Choosing definite bookends can be a huge help.

A runbook is a description of how to change the world from some starting point to some desired goal. But, it can be hard to figure out what does and doesn't belong in that runbook if you're vague about what the boundaries are. Choosing definite bookends for each runbook can be a huge help.

For example, you might have a "Set up a new employee's laptop" as one of your business's runbooks. There are a lot of things which have to be true before you'd want to do that, and it has to end with the laptop actually ready to be used. But, there are also a lot of somewhat related things that are also part of getting a new employee ready which may or may not be part of that runbook. How do you know which to include? The bookends for the runbook will tell you.

An ideal set of bookends has a number of common traits:

  • they each represent a single moment in time

  • it is unambiguous and obvious when they have happened

  • they define a natural starting and stopping point for the overall job

  • they are clearly related to one another and to the job being performed

Choosing the Starting Bookend

The easiest way to find the actual starting point of a runbook is to pick a step you're sure is somewhere in the middle, and then ask yourself: "What do I need to do first?" Keep repeating that question until you drill down to the very first step. Now, ask: "How do I know when it's time to do that?". That's your starting bookend.

Let's consider the example of hiring a new employee. Perhaps you are the co-owner of a seasonal tour guide business. You hire people on for the summer, with the understanding that the job ends in the fall. So, if you have a runbook to hire someone, when does it really start?

Maybe the first thing that occurs to you is that you need to put an ad in the local paper. Is that the very first step? No... you need to decide what you're paying for the position first. Is that the first step? No... you need to chat with your partner to decide on your overall staffing plan first. Is that the first step? Yes. That's when you do your thinking for the season and make all the relevant decisions. So, how do you know when it's time to schedule that meeting? It's always on May 1st. Therefore, that date is the starting bookend.

Choosing the Ending Bookend

Choosing the ending bookend is superficially just the reverse of choosing the starting bookend. Keep asking: "Is this the last step?" until you answer "Yes". The real difficulty is deciding when to stop this process. After all, it's easy to endlessly keep adding more and more to the runbook since there's always more to do.

A better approach is to ask yourself: "What is the logical goal of this runbook?", and then: "What observable event tells me that goal is clearly and finally finished?". Considering our earlier example of hiring summer help, the logical goal of the process is to get people to agree to show up and give tours. So, the observable, unambiguous, and final event which marks the ending bookend is when the signed employment contract is filed with the company's official papers. Anything after that point no longer serves the goal of hiring, but rather on-boarding the new employee.

Bookends as Handoffs Between Runbooks

Often, the ending bookend for one runbook is the starting bookend for another. You can picture this like a number line. In reality, there are just a lot of individual tasks which are all connected to one another. The bookend is the spot on the number line where you divide one runbook from the next:

So, instead of a single runbook, you may be writing a set of related runbooks, and the question of bookends is really: where do you divide one runbook from the next? In general, it's often best to break where:

  • all the steps after some one step are conditional upon that step

  • the person responsible for the overall job changes

  • there's a natural delay from one step to the next

  • there's clearly a new goal involved

Let's re-consider our first example: setting up a laptop for a new employee. Naturally, you wouldn't do this before they accept the offer! In fact, you wouldn't want to start until you were sure everything was completely finalized: in other words, not until the "Hire a new employee" runbook was finished. The ending bookend for that runbook is the perfect starting bookend for the next:

  • no step of setting up the laptop should start until the employee has accepted

  • the hiring manager performs the first runbook, while an IT support person does the second

  • the employee may not start for a few weeks, and the laptop set-up need only be started a week beforehand

  • hiring a new employee is clearly a separate goal from setting up a laptop

Our product, Runbooks allows you to easily include the bookends for your runbooks in their descriptions. The description can even link to the runbook(s) which may follow or precede it so the sequence from one to the next is always clear.