Breaking up a Large Runbook

When working with runbooks, it's easy to wind up with one which is too big to be practical. Here's how you break it up into multiple runbooks.

When working with runbooks, you can easily find yourself with one which is too big to be practical. Perhaps the initial process was just bigger than you expected, or it had many more details to cover than you realized. It also happens that runbooks can grow over time as new or missing steps are added. Eventually, the runbook becomes unwieldy, and people either have difficulty with it or just stop using it altogether. At this point, it's time to break it up into pieces. This guide will walk you through the process.

Finding the Seams

It's easiest to start breaking down a runbook by looking for individual steps which are full runbooks in themselves. Look for any step that:

  • is occasionally performed by itself

  • has a bulleted or numbered list enumerating a bunch of "sub-steps"

  • has clear bookends which could form a clear runbook by itself

  • is performed by someone different from the person/group who performs the rest of the runbook

If any of these are true, that step is a candidate to become its own runbook. 

The second thing to look for is groups of steps which could logically be a new runbook. In addition to the criteria above, consider:

  • Is there a clear set of bookends all the steps share?

  • Is there some person, place, or piece of equipment common to all of those steps?

  • Are all the steps usually performed at the same time, with a gap before and/or after?

If so, then you may have found a good candidate for a new runbook.

Extracting the Pieces

Once you have found a step (or steps) you want to extract, pull up a clean sheet and start a new runbook. From there, the process is similar to starting a runbook from scratch in some ways, but since you already have some initial content there are a bunch of differences. Start by refreshing your memory on the bookends you chose, and then revise the content you copied over. Here are a few things to look for:

  1. Evaluate bulleted/numbered lists to see if they are really sequences of instructions (rather than a list of materials, for example). These should be converted into actual steps in the new runbook.

  2. If you started with multiple steps from the original runbook, consider whether those are still the right steps. The division of work which made sense in the original runbook may no longer make sense in your new runbook.

  3. Consider whether there are any "missing" steps a novice would need to successfully complete the runbook. These often go missing when a detailed process gets crammed into a single step.

  4. Fill out details on each step which "didn't fit" into the original runbook. For example, this often happens when you convert a bulleted list into actual steps. Try to ensure each step has a similar level of detail.

Now, go back to the original runbook, and replace the original step(s) with a single new step which refers to the new runbook you just created (if you're using our Runbooks app, you can just add a link). Re-read the original runbook with the new step in place, taking the time to read new runbook in its proper place in the sequence. You particularly want to be sure nothing got lost in between the two runbooks. Use the bookends you selected for your new runbook to decide where any missing pieces actually belong.

Of course, now you just need to go back and repeat the same process for each candidate you identified!

Our website, Runbooks, eliminates a lot of friction in this process. Just pop open two windows, and you can easily refer back and forth to move over the original content. Then, when you're finished, it's easy to link to your new runbook from the original so they stay connected as they should be.