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When Should You Start Using Runbooks: Lessons from My Experience as Delivery Manager


There was a time, early in my role as a delivery manager, when an unexpected issue derailed our project for days. If we had a simple guide or procedure to follow, those lost hours could have been mere minutes. That's when I truly grasped the power of runbooks.

In this article, I'll share my insights on recognizing when it’s time to embrace runbooks and the transformative effect they can have on project delivery.

Definition and Purpose of a Runbook:

A runbook is essentially a set of written procedures detailing routine operations and processes. Think of it as a guide that offers step-by-step instructions for different scenarios, ensuring that anyone who follows it can efficiently tackle a task or resolve an issue.

While it may sound simple, the core purpose of a runbook goes beyond just providing instructions. It ensures consistency, bridges the knowledge gap among team members, and offers a blueprint for dealing with unfamiliar or infrequent situations.

Runbook vs Playbook:

RunbookPlaybookPrimary FocusA runbook primarily focuses on operational procedures. It provides detailed, step-by-step procedures for the routine and recovery processes in a system. It's the "how-to" guide for managing and resolving system issues.A playbook is broader in scope and can cover any systematic plan or strategy, often detailing contingency plans or strategies for various scenarios, not limited to technical processes.Usage Context:Traditionally used in IT operations, especially in systems administration, network operations, and incident response.Often associated with business strategies, crisis communication, and even sports coaching. In a business context, it can span across departments from marketing to sales to operations.ContentContains technical instructions, such as commands to run, scripts to execute, checklists to follow, and conditions to check to resolve specific incidents or problems.Outlines various scenarios, the strategies to tackle each scenario, roles and responsibilities, and sometimes even communication protocols.ObjectiveTo ensure consistency, reduce downtime, and facilitate quick recovery when issues arise.To provide a clear plan of action for different situations, ensuring all team members know their roles and responsibilities in each scenario.ExampleIn a tech setup, a runbook might detail steps to restart a server, backup data, or troubleshoot a network error.In a business setup, a marketing playbook might outline different marketing strategies for various customer segments or scenarios, such as product launches or crisis management.

Early Signs That Your Team Needs a Runbook

As a delivery manager, recognizing the early signs that your team might benefit from a runbook can be a game-changer. It’s about being proactive rather than reactive. Here are some tell-tale signs that indicate the need for a runbook:

Recurring Issues: When the same problems or questions keep surfacing, it's a clear indication that there's a lack of standardized procedure in place.

Inconsistent Solutions: If two team members tackle the same problem in different ways, leading to varied outcomes, it's a sign that standardized guidelines are required.

Longer Resolution Times: If issues that once took minutes to resolve now take hours, it may indicate that team members are unsure about the correct procedures.

Reliance on Specific Individuals: If everyone turns to the same one or two individuals every time there’s an issue, it means that there’s a knowledge silo. Documenting this knowledge can prevent a potential crisis if these individuals are ever unavailable.

Frequent Mistakes: Errors or oversights in routine tasks suggest that there isn’t a clear, step-by-step procedure being followed.

New Team Member Struggles: If new hires take a long time to adapt and need frequent assistance with routine tasks, having a runbook can significantly ease their onboarding process.

Feedback from Stakeholders: If clients or stakeholders frequently point out inconsistencies or errors, it may indicate the need for clearer operational procedures.

Rapid Growth and Scaling: When your team is growing fast, ensuring that everyone is on the same page becomes critical. If you're experiencing growth and find alignment becoming challenging, a runbook can help.

Upcoming Major Changes: Be it a software upgrade, a shift in company strategy, or the introduction of new tools, major changes can benefit from detailed procedural documentation.

Post-Mortems Always Point to Communication: If after-action reviews or post-mortems of issues often conclude with "this could have been communicated better," it suggests that clearer, written procedures could be beneficial.

Recognizing these signs early and taking action can prevent minor operational hiccups from escalating into significant issues. A well-structured runbook provides the foundation for smoother, more consistent operations, ensuring that the team can focus on innovation and delivery rather than constantly firefighting.

Follow me as I share my thoughts on managing dev teams, ensuring timely delivery and learning lessons as I go.

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