Documentation

How to Create a Runbook: Fast & Easy Step-by-Step Guide

Runbooks can make things easy for your team. But creating accurate and actionable runbooks requires targeted effort. Learn more about it here to get started.

Introduction

Picture this: your servers have mysteriously gone down. You need immediate help to prevent the loss of crucial data and avoid inconvenience to your customers… BUT the leading engineers are unavailable. 

Your IT team is left shorthanded to tackle this crisis and achieve the impossible goal of getting servers back up. Sounds like a nightmare, right? 

Emergencies like these call for a properly documented runbook

Put simply, a runbook is a detailed set of instructions to perform a task — both routine and urgent. Think of them like recipes. They give users a clear understanding of the ingredients they need and steps to take to reach an end goal.

But creating a runbook isn’t quite as easy as writing a recipe. To draft a good one you need research and an accurate understanding of the task. 

In this blog, we’ve done the legwork to simplify the runbook creation process. Below you’ll find a 5-step framework to create a solid runbook. 

What is a runbook?

A runbook is a well-defined, step-by-step guide to performing complex tasks and processes within the IT infrastructure. It documents the instructions to handle different situations, like server downtime or debugging. 

Runbooks are actionable solutions to standardize process documentation for the IT team. They also provide quick answers in emergencies — like a complete server outage. Instead of looking for the leading engineers, anyone from the IT team can follow the runbook and fix the error.

A good runbook has to incorporate multiple factors, primarily these five.

  • Actionable: A runbook should match the intended users’ level of understanding. Avoid complex terms and steps that the end users might not get. Remove any unnecessary details that don’t directly guide the users to perform the task. 
  • Accessible: A runbook must be readily available, especially in emergencies. Store your runbooks in a searchable directory so anyone can find one quickly. You can also store them in your communication platform, like MS Teams, Basecamp or Slack, and add searchable metadata for each document. 
  • Accurate: An inaccurate runbook can lead to discrepancies. Review and test runbooks to maximize their accuracy. Once a runbook is live, you can collect user feedback to check for incorrect details. 
  • Authoritative: Make sure there's no more than one runbook for every process. Multiple runbooks for the same task can confuse users. Create a feedback channel for users to inform runbook owners about any outdated documents. 
  • Adaptable: IT systems are ever-evolving, and dynamic runbooks are the way forward. Design runbooks so you can easily modify them when there are changes in the system.

Runbooks are a single point of reference for any task that help maintain workflow consistency while increasing operational efficiency. So, these five factors are critical to making yours foolproof. 

When do you need a runbook?

Runbooks come in many forms — some document standard tasks while others respond to big emergencies. Let’s look at the three main types of runbooks you’ll run into. 

  • Manual: These runbooks show the exact steps the operator should follow. The IT tools required in this case are readily available.
  • Semi-Automated: In these runbooks, each step details what to expect from the operator. However, the operator can also run some automated tasks.
  • Automated: As the name suggests, fully automated runbooks don’t need an operator. They can run without any interference.

Broadly, there are two kinds of runbooks. Both types can be either manual, semi-automated, or automated.

1. General runbooks

General runbooks focus on routine IT activities, like reviewing audit logs and monitoring system performance. Document these processes to make it easier than ever to onboard employees and promote consistency.

2. Specialized runbooks

Specialized runbooks cover more complicated requests or unplanned situations, like security breaches, hardware failure or network failure.

How to create a runbook in 5 easy steps

Now that you know the benefits and applications of runbooks, let’s look at a 5-step framework to create effective runbooks like a pro. 

1. Identify and prioritize processes to cover

First off, get an overview of all the processes worth documenting. Examine your existing processes to identify their purpose, primary contacts, bug reporting mechanism and other details.

Go over incident reports to find out the processes that need runbooks. Assess the incidents and prioritize processes based on their frequency. First, cater to recurring tasks that are prone to issues. That’ll solve some major problems along the way and increase overall efficiency. 

You should also look at processes that pose financial and operational risks. Review past incident reports to see how the team resolved issues. Is there a consistent solution? What’s the most accurate way of getting things done?

 Identify and document these best practices in your runbook. 

2. Create a runbook template covering key details

A runbook template can standardize your documentation efforts and ensure all runbooks have the right information. Here are a few must-have points to include in your template.

  • Process overview.
  • Technical documentation.
  • Escalation protocols.
  • Process steps.
  • Personnel permissions.
  • Authorization.
  • Reporting and communications.

Each step in the runbook should include these core data fields.

  • Task ID.
  • Task name.
  • Task details.
  • Task description.
  • Task owner.
  • Team executing the task.
  • Duration of completing the task.
  • Status.

You should refer to all relevant resources when prepping a template, such as login credentials, reference documentation, configuration information and network diagrams. 

Once you’ve completed the template,, cross-check it against the above characteristics of a good runbook. 

3. Complete your research and documentation process

Before you start drafting a runbook, invest your time researching more about the process. A template simplifies and accelerates the research process because you know exactly what you need. It also eliminates constant back-and-forth while sourcing relevant information.

Focus your research efforts on these core areas of your runbook.

Procedures

Don’t rely on your memory here. Instead, perform the task at least twice to take screenshots and jot down notes for your guide. 

Documentation

Clearly document all the software and hardware specifications, network diagrams, login credentials and configuration information.

Alerts

Find out the alerts and notifications that’ll direct operators to the runbook. 

Permissions

Decide which organization members are authorized to use the runbook or have permission to execute steps.

Communications

Set up the required reporting guidelines for initiation, completion and review. This keeps everyone on the same page about the future use and modification of the document.

4. Write, design and set up your runbook 

Once you prepare a template and complete your research, it won’t be too hard to write and design your runbook.

First things first, you don't want to confuse your reader. So, before starting the writing process, prepare a style guide to lay down the editorial guidelines for jargon and grammar. 

You can also work with technical writers if nobody in your team is available to document these processes. Align them with the subject matter experts to produce laser-focused and accurate documentation.

Once the overall process is ready, use a documentation tool like Scribe auto-generate a step-by-step guide. Scribe will follow and document your process for you, including instructions and screenshots. Then you can edit text and edit images to create the ultimate runbook. 

Here’s what a Scribe looks like in action:

5. Test and update for accuracy and relevance

The process doesn’t end with just creating the runbook. You also need to test and update it for more accuracy. Initial tests will help identify any incorrect or missing information. 

You’ll want well-rounded feedback. Take input from new hires and subject matter experts during the testing process. 

New hires can offer insights into how the staff would respond to the runbook.

In-house experts are the right audience to pinpoint issues with accuracy and relevance. 

Use this preliminary feedback to make runbooks fail-proof. And after it’s published, collect regular feedback from the end users to update the documents regularly.

Create seamless runbooks today

Runbooks help you record and systematize process knowledge. Teams use this documentation method to offer easy and quick access to instructions for performing repeat and emergency tasks. 

You need a roadmap to draft the perfect runbook. Start by deciding the processes you want to document and identify the ideal audience. Then create a template or use an existing template to do in-depth research about the process. 

Once you have all the information you need, convert it into an actionable and concise set of instructions. 

Scribe lets you create engaging runbooks in half the time. Use Scribe to document your processes 15x faster and distribute the runbooks with a simple URL.