When Should I Make a Runbook?

You've finally decided your team really needs to start writing down how they do different things. Maybe someone left the team, and there was a frantic rush to transfer knowledge. Maybe you've gotten fed up with having one too many costly mistakes in some complicated process. Whatever the reason, you're determined that things are going to be different next time, and that means writing things down. But, where do you start?

For describing step-by-step processes, there's nothing quite so ideal as a runbook. They are a kind of checklist which provides clear, precise instructions for experts while simultaneously providing all the details needed by a novice (see: A Runbook Is Not a Checklist for more details). Before you can start writing one, though, you need to decide which processes are worth the time and effort.

8 Criteria for Making a Runbook

I use these 8 criteria for deciding whether it's worth writing a runbook for a process:

  • complexity — easy ➔ hard

  • risk — low ➔ high

  • urgency — planned ➔ sudden

  • experience — expert ➔ novice

  • frequency — often ➔ seldom

  • duration — brief ➔ extended

  • participants — one ➔ several

  • observers — none ➔ many

Let me walk through each of these in turn.

1. Complexity: Hard

This is the obvious one. If a process is long and complicated, chances are very good that you're going to miss something important unless you're following some kind of guide. However, just because something is fairly simple doesn't mean it won't benefit from a runbook. The following criteria outline cases where it may be worthwhile to create a runbook for even a simple process.

2. Risk: High

This one, too, is pretty obvious. When there's a good chance of something bad happening, we naturally try to be careful, slow down, and double-check ourselves as we go along. An excellent way to do that is to write down each step we're going to take ahead of time, review it, and then rehearse it. Writing a runbook makes it easy to do all of those things.

3. Urgency: Sudden

We all tend to panic a bit in an emergency. Processes which are usually simple become daunting, and we have a greater tendency to make mistakes. In these situations, it's immensely helpful to have a clear list of steps to follow right in front of us. It's even easier if those steps are a clear and well-written runbook with all the necessary details right at hand.

4. Experience: Novice

Many businesses have tasks which usually fall to the newly hired, newly graduated, or simply inexperienced. These folks need a disproportionate amount of help with any given task, and one can't assume they already know all the details. It takes a huge burden off the rest of the team to have detailed runbooks for these folks.

5. Frequency: Seldom

Paradoxically, it's often those processes which you perform infrequently which benefit the most from having a runbook. The simple reason is just that we forget things: especially those things we don't do very often. So, when considering a process you only do quarterly (or worse, annually), it's much more likely to benefit from a runbook.

When you have the right tools...

These first five criteria will help you identify good candidates for runbooks, even if you're just using pen and paper. Processes which meet the next three criteria get an extra boost when you're using our product, Runbooks. It has lots of features which make your runbooks way more powerful than a ball-point pen.

So, on to those last three criteria...

6. Duration: Extended

The longer a process takes to finish, the more likely you are to step away to do something else. Of course, when you return to it, you find yourself asking: "Where was I again?". Having a written process makes it much easier to pick up where you left off. Even better, Runbooks automatically keeps track of where you were so you have a written record of what you have and haven't finished. You can even take notes right in the log, so you never lose track of the details.

7. Participants: Several

The more people involved in a process, the more communication is needed to ensure that: 1) everyone knows what they have to do, and 2) when it's their turn to do it. Having a clear, written record of the process is great for clarifying the first point, but it won't help you with the second. Runbooks is great for both since it lets each step be assigned to different team member, and will automatically inform the next assigned person when it's their turn.

8. Observers: Many

Some processes are higher profile than others. But, when there are a bunch of people who want to know what's going on, life can quickly degenerate into an unending flood of requests for "status". Having a written runbook helps because you can simply tell people what step you are on. Even better is not having to do that yourself. Runbooks allows any number of people to sign up for notifications, and control the granularity themselves.


So far, this has all been fairly abstract. Let's consider some specific examples to help make these concepts more concrete. I've drawn some (anonymous) examples from actual runbooks people have made using our product.

Giving a Tour

Consider a small co-working space. Every week or two a potential customer gets in touch to take a tour before deciding whether to rent a spot. The tour itself includes walking around the entire space, pointing out various useful features, giving a few nominal gifts (e.g., a coffee mug), and answering questions. If the person says they definitely want to rent a spot, the tour also includes pointing out how to operate various pieces of equipment (e.g., the coffee maker, projectors in the meeting rooms, door locks, etc.). The tour is usually given by the community manager, who is a fairly recent hire, but the owners of the space want to know when tours are given.

How does this process rate? Using our eight criteria, this process deserves a runbook because it has: high complexity, moderate experience on the part of the community manager, and several observers.

Pre-Flight Checklist

Imagine you're the pilot of a small aircraft, and you're about to take a friend on a pleasure flight. You've done this many times before, and you have no particular reason for special concern. Nevertheless, you pull out a pre-flight checklist and thoroughly inspect many aspects of the aircraft and its performance before taking off.

How does this process rate? This is also is a good candidate for a runbook because it is moderately complex (such checklists usually have roughly two dozen items), and because the risk of missing something is so terribly high.

Responding to an Outage

We software engineers are frequently are called upon to respond to problems with the software we create: sometimes unexpectedly and in the middle of the night. The steps provide a sequence of things which might potentially have gone wrong, and instructions on how to verify that they are working correctly. Since outages rarely happen at convenient times, instructions need to be written for a groggy engineer who's been abruptly woken up to check things out. Moreover, since all the engineers on the team share being on call, they must be written so that the least experienced member of the team can use them.

How does this process rate? This is perhaps one of the most common cases for a runbook since it hits so many of our criteria: high complexity, high risk (of breaking things further), urgent, often several participants, and usually many observers.

Draining the Hot Tub for the Summer

Runbooks needn't always be for serious, work-related items. We have a runbook which outlines the steps to drain and service someone's hot tub. There are a number of bits to disassemble, and hoses must be connected to the correct places in the correct order to avoid floods. Plus, this is something one only does once a year, so the details are never fresh in mind when one goes to do it.

How does this process rate? In this case, the risk is moderate (flooding), but the real catch is that the frequency is very low (annual). That makes it very likely you'll have forgotten some important detail between occasions when you do this chore.

Most of the common tasks around your business probably don't need a runbook. They're simple, low-risk things which are performed often enough that qualified people have no problems doing them correctly. However, it's also probably true that there are quite a few processes which would benefit from a runbook because they're complex, high-risk, or one of the other eight criteria. Whatever the reasons, Runbooks is the perfect place to put them.