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Playbook vs. Runbook: What's the Difference & Which One Is Best for Your Team?

Playbook vs. Runbook: What's the Difference & Which One Is Best for Your Team?

abstract illustration of a runbook process

💡 What's the difference between a playbook vs. runbook?

Playbooks document processes for specific tasks, while runbooks document overarching strategic processes for your team.

Do you find yourself answering the same questions over and over? Are you afraid your team will leave your "quick" call and instantly forget the detailed process you just painstakingly went over? Trust us, we’ve been there, too.

Documentation like runbooks and playbooks can help your team help themselves and free up your time for your own long list of to-dos.

Teams will use these terms interchangeably, but it might come as a surprise that these two types of documentation are not the same thing.

Runbooks are your go-to if your team needs step-by-step instructions for certain tasks. On the other hand, playbooks have a broader focus and are great for teams that need to document more complex processes. 

Think of a playbook as the guide to opening a coffee shop and a runbook as the instructions to make your signature drink.

In this guide, we’ll compare the key differences between a playbook vs. runbook, when to use each one, and tips for creating A+ documentation to support your team.

venn diagram comparing runbooks and playbooks

What's a playbook?

A playbook is a detailed document that covers how to perform a process with your team’s overarching strategy in mind.

This kind of document gives a high level overview of your team’s processes.

If you’re an onboarding manager, you can have a playbook for onboarding and training a new hire during their first 90 days. The playbook can include information on the welcome emails, account permissions, and obligatory welcome donuts that need to go out on a new hire’s first day. 

Playbooks often include more background information than a runbook. You might see the goals of the playbook, an organizational chart, and the company mission and vision statements.

These guides can also be your safety net when the unexpected happens. For example, a playbook can help your team restore files and create short-term fixes when your applicant tracking system unexpectedly drops. Having a well-documented backup plan can mean one less fire to put out during a busy hiring season.

Playbooks can include automation, but they typically require a person to do some or all steps.

Below are common playbook examples:

  • Employee training playbooks go over the processes to train employees in different departments and at different levels of seniority.
  • Crisis playbooks provide plans for different types of crises, like natural disasters or negative PR.
  • Operations playbooks outline the steps different departments should take to deliver the company’s services to its customers.
  • Sales playbooks cover best practices for scenarios with different types of sales leads.
  • Cybersecurity playbooks help companies navigate cybersecurity incidents, like malware attacks.

What's a runbook?

A runbook documents the instructions to complete a specific task.

These documents are more direct and usually have a set of steps so your team can manually carry out the runbook, fully automate it, or do a mix of both. 

Runbooks are usually part of a playbook. For example, during the new hire process, you may have one runbook specifically for giving new hires access to the tools and accounts they’ll need for their first day. 

Like playbooks, you can create runbooks for repetitive tasks or when a crisis happens. Runbooks are most commonly used by cybersecurity, IT, or tech-related departments to document routine tasks like sending out notifications during a security breach. That said, teams from any department can use runbooks to support their day-to-day tasks.

Below are common runbook examples:

  • Backup creation runbooks automatically create copies in case of system failures.
  • System performance runbooks routinely check for changes or resource shortages.
  • New hire documentation runbooks automatically send out and process new hire paperwork.
  • Documentation content audit runbooks go over the steps of reviewing and updating existing documents.
  • Equipment purchase runbooks lay out the steps needed to vet team requests and place orders. 

When to use a runbook vs playbook: Key differences for documentation

Now, how do you choose between a runbook vs. playbook when you're ready to document a process?

Both options are great for sharing institutional knowledge with the rest of the team. Both can help people get up to speed and suggest process improvements. Both can also familiarize your team with new processes without completely pulling your senior team members or managers away from their own work.

However, playbooks are best for documenting large processes, while runbooks are best for specific tasks. For example, your IT director may use a playbook to delegate incident response responsibilities to another senior leader, while an IT manager may send a few runbooks to their team that help with their everyday duties.

Getting these two distinctions down can help you figure out the best solution for your team.

If you’re still unsure, you can ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I need to document a large multi-phase process or steps for a single task?
  • Do I need to hand off an entire project or a specific task?
  • Am I spending too much time on a project that another team or team member can handle?
  • Am I spending too much time explaining specific instructions?
side-by-side comparison of when knowledge managers should use playbooks vs. runbooks

How to create runbooks and playbooks

When it comes time to create your runbook or playbook, you’ll follow the same general steps.

  1. Choose the process you want to document by looking at routine tasks from the team, recent challenges, existing documentation, and any newly uncovered knowledge gaps.
  2. Gather background information and input from relevant teams or team members.
  3. Document the steps to complete the task, resolve the issue, or get you to your end goal faster.
  4. Include any additional information and steps needed (for example, steps and criteria for escalating issues to other team members).
  5. Loop in subject matter experts to review for compliance.
  6. Send it to team members for review.
  7. Assign responsibility for maintaining these documents.
  8. Create your guide in a relevant and accessible format.
  9. House the documentation in an accessible area for the team (like a company wiki or intranet).
  10. Share the runbook or playbook with relevant team members (like through email or Slack).

Both of these documents should empower your team to complete tasks and projects without much oversight or extra context needed. 🕺 

Tips for creating both runbooks and playbooks

Both of these documents also follow the same documentation best practices. Follow these tips below when creating either a runbook or playbook.

  • Choose the best documentation tool that can streamline document creation and upkeep.
  • Create process documentation templates that promote both consistency and flexibility.
  • If focused on resolving an issue, include details on the main cause(s), steps for testing the solution, and steps for following up on the solution.
  • Take feedback from all relevant departments.
  • Test it before sharing with the wider team.
  • Take advantage of opportunities for automation, especially for repetitive tasks.
  • Make it easy to share and update.
  • Use simple language so any team member can achieve the desired outcome. 
  • Keep up source-controlled and versioned documents.
  • Schedule routine audits to continue improving and incorporating feedback.
  • Maintain historical information, like changes in best practices.
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The bottom line

Now that we’ve run through the differences, it should be easier to know when to use a playbook vs. runbook to enable your team to do their best work. 

The next step is to actually document your core processes. Despite what you may have experienced, capturing your know-how doesn’t have to be a huge time suck. With the right tool, it can even be fun. 💃


How is a playbook used in incident response?

Playbooks are used to document learnings and knowledge gained after past incidents. They also include steps to take to resolve the issue. Incident response playbooks are great for improving visibility between teams rather than having information spread across current and past team members.

What's the difference between a runbook and standard operating procedures (SOPs)?

SOPs are used to document many types of processes, while runbooks are typically used to document IT-specific tasks. SOPs may also include contextual information and multiple processes, while runbooks typically cover one process.

For example, an SOP might cover what each team member is responsible for when responding to a phishing attack. A runbook would include steps for the cybersecurity team to recover accounts.

What's the difference between runbooks and user guides?

User guides are typically targeted at customers and give a thorough overview of a product. The guide will walk through all of a product’s features and can include step-by-step instructions and best practices for using it.

In comparison, runbooks are meant for internal use and focus on a single process.

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