Conceptual image showing the difference between runbooks versus playbooks

Ever found yourself scratching your head, wondering whether you should be reaching for a runbook or a playbook when a specific situation arises?

You're not alone.

At first glance, both serve to align people, processes, and technology within an organization. They help you set clear goals and provide the steps to achieve them, all while integrating smoothly with the tech you rely on every day.

With that said, there is a very distinct difference between the two:

  • Playbooks: These are used to provide a comprehensive strategy for handling complex scenarios, offering a broader perspective on your organization's processes.
  • Runbooks: These can be viewed as your detailed, step-by-step guides for routine tasks and procedures. They're your team's first line of defense in maintaining consistency and efficiency.

Knowing when to use which can make a huge difference in your team's efficiency as well as how they tackle unexpected challenges that pop up out of nowhere.

Which is what this post is all about. We'll take a look at playbooks versus runbooks, why they matter, and what scenarios each is best used for.

Let's get started.

What is a Playbook?

Example sales coaching playbook from Gong to help sales reps during initial discovery phase of customer pain points


Think of a playbook as more than just a manual; it's a comprehensive collection of your business's unique experience, knowledge, and structure. It captures the essence of what makes your business distinct akin to the way hospitals operateᅳwhile surgeons may share uniform educational training, each hospital functions uniquely, owing to its distinct procedures and policies. 

Characteristics of a Playbook: ⁤

  • Unique Business Identity: A playbook reflects your company's culture, branding, and market standing. ⁤⁤It's the compilation of your internal knowledge and the unique elements that set you apart. ⁤
  • Operational and Cultural Guide: This document details not only the operational procedures but also the cultural aspects - who does what, how they do it, and the guiding policies. ⁤
  • Strategic Focus: Playbooks prioritize what's crucial for your team to know versus what's for reference, focusing on your business's strategic goals. ⁤

Practical Uses:

  • Employee Orientation and Training: It helps new team members understand expectations and how they fit into the broader picture, while also allowing experienced employees to share their insights, ensuring consistency and high standards.
  • Consistency: As your business grows a playbook helps to standardize procedures which enables performance standards to remain consistent across all team members in similar roles.
  • Aligning Teams with Vision and Values: It aligns your team's efforts with the company's vision and core values, ensuring everyone is moving in the same direction. 

Why a Playbook is Essential:

  • Unburdening Leadership: It translates the tacit knowledge of leadership into a shareable form, freeing up time and mental space.
  • Creating a Valuable Asset: By documenting collective experience and knowledge, the playbook becomes an asset, increasing the company's value and ensuring operational continuity without dependence on any single individual.

Common Playbook Examples:

  • Onboarding Manager's Playbook: Covers the unique approach to the first 90 days of a new hire.
       Crisis Playbooks: Tailored plans for crises, reflecting the company’s specific crisis management strategy and values.
  • Business Playbooks: Customized steps for different departments, rooted in the company’s unique operational and cultural framework.
  • Sales Playbooks: Strategies and best practices for engaging with diverse sales leads.
  • Employee Training Playbooks: Process guides for training employees across departments and seniority levels.

In essence a playbook is critical for distilling and distributing the unique knowledge and processes that make your business tick. It's a tool not just for maintaining efficiency but for fostering a unified culture and vision as your company evolves. 

What is a Runbook?

Runbook example for Spark tasks are experiencing high disk I/O and shuffle spills


Imagine a runbook as your team's operational bible—a detailed, task-oriented guide that's crucial for the smooth running of daily activities, especially within IT and support teams. It acts as a step-by-step manual for specific procedures, ensuring tasks are executed with precision and efficiency.

Characteristics of a Runbook:

  • Task-Specific Focus: Runbooks help employees to focus in on a particular operational task or issue, providing straightforward, actionable instructions to tackle them. ⁤
  • Detailed Procedures: They offer detailed, easy-to-follow steps for various operational tasks, breaking down complex activities into manageable actions.
  • Consistency in Execution: Aimed at standardizing procedures, runbooks ensure consistent outcomes and high-quality performance across different teams and scenarios.
  • Quick Reference and Problem-Solving: Runbooks are designed to be easily accessible, allowing for rapid decision-making and effective problem-solving in operational settings.

Practical Uses:

  • Streamline Routine Operations: Runbooks are essential for standardizing and streamlining routine operations, reducing the need for repeated explanations and training.
  • Essential for Emergency Response: They are particularly valuable in emergency situations or for incident response, where quick, reliable, and correct actions are critical.

Why a Runbook is Essential:

  • Empowering Teams: Runbooks empower team members by providing them with the necessary tools and knowledge to handle tasks independently.
  • Reducing Dependency: By having detailed instructions, runbooks reduce the dependency on key individuals, enabling smoother operations even in their absence.
  • Quality Assurance: Ensures that all team members perform tasks to the same standard, maintaining quality and reducing errors.

Common Runbook Examples:

  • Server Restart Procedures: Detailed steps for safely restarting servers, including pre-checks and post-restart verifications.
  • Routine Maintenance Tasks: Guides for regular maintenance activities such as software updates, system backups, or security checks.
  • Incident Response: Specific, step-by-step procedures for responding to common IT incidents, such as network outages or security breaches.

Essentially a runbook is indispensable for codifying and sharing the specific knowledge and processes that keep your business running smoothly. More than just maintaining efficiency, it's about empowering your team to act confidently and ensuring a unified approach to operations as your organization grows and evolves.

When to Use a Playbook vs. Runbook: Understanding Key Differences

Two circles that intersect with text to show the difference between a runbook vs playbook as well as similarities/where they intersect

Choosing between a runbook and a playbook can often seem like a subtle decision, but understanding their unique applications and differences is key to employing them effectively. This section aims to clarify these distinctions with direct comparisons and practical examples.

Context and Scope

  • Playbooks are ideal for scenarios requiring strategic planning and a broad understanding of the organization’s goals. They are comprehensive, encompassing multiple aspects of a process or strategy. For example, a disaster recovery playbook might outline the overall strategy and steps for the organization to recover from major incidents like data breaches or natural disasters. It includes not just the technical steps, but also communication plans, roles, and decision-making processes.
  • Runbooks are best suited for specific, operational tasks. These are detailed guides for individual procedures or issues, focusing on the 'how-to' aspect. As an example, a data backup runbook would provide detailed instructions for performing regular data backups, including software settings, frequency, and troubleshooting steps for common issues.

Detail and Functionality

  • Playbooks offer a comprehensive view, integrating processes with organizational vision. They often include why a certain process is important and how it fits into the bigger picture. For instance, an onboarding playbook could include the philosophy behind the onboarding process, objectives, key milestones, and the role of different departments in integrating a new hire into the company culture.
  • Runbooks are more about precision and step-by-step guidance, focusing on specific tasks without delving into broader implications. Case in point, an email system troubleshooting runbook would list steps to diagnose and fix common email system issues, aimed at quickly resolving problems without addressing wider IT strategy.

Application and Impact

  • Playbooks are typically used for planning and strategy, guiding teams through complex scenarios or projects that have long-term impacts.
  • Runbooks are often utilized for immediate action, especially in situations that require quick, accurate, and consistent responses.

Decision-Making Guide

To decide whether a runbook or a playbook is more appropriate, ask:

  • Scope of Need: Are you addressing a specific task or outlining a broad strategy?
  • Detail Level: Do you need detailed instructions for immediate action or a strategic guide for ongoing processes?
  • Long-Term vs Immediate: Is this for long-term strategic planning or immediate operational execution?

In Summary

  • Use playbooks when the goal is to align tasks with broader strategic objectives and to provide a comprehensive view of processes.
  • Opt for runbooks when the focus is on detailed, step-by-step instructions for specific operational tasks.

By understanding these distinctions, you can better decide which tool is best suited for your team's current needs, enhancing both efficiency and effectiveness.

Using Runbooks and Playbooks in Incident Management

Incident management, a critical aspect of IT operations and organizational resilience often requires rapid, precise, and well-informed responses. This is where the strategic application of playbooks and runbooks becomes essential especially when combined with ITIL change management principles. While playbooks and runbooks are distinct from each other (as we mentioned in the beginning of the article), they can be used together as part of how your IT department manages incidents.

For instance, an IT Security Incident Management Playbook might delineate the overall strategy for dealing with different types of security breaches. This would include defining roles and responsibilities, establishing communication protocols, and laying out recovery plans.

Conversely, when an actual security breach occurs, this is where a runbook comes into play. A runbook provides the on-the-ground team with specific, step-by-step actions to take in response to the breach. It could guide the IT specialist through the initial detection, containment procedures, and the subsequent steps to mitigate the breach's impact. This ensures that every team member knows precisely what to do, reducing variability in response and accelerating the resolution process.

In practical terms, this dual approach allows IT departments to be both proactive and reactive. While the playbook sets the stage by providing a comprehensive response framework, the runbook brings this plan to life with detailed execution steps. It's like having a game plan for the entire season (playbook) and a detailed plan for each game (runbook). 

Using a Knowledge Base for Your Playbooks and Runbooks

Integrating a knowledge base with your playbooks and runbooks can be a game-changer for how you manage and refine organizational processes. This approach isn't just about IT operations—it spans sales, customer service, and more, boosting efficiency and creating a cohesive, knowledgeable organizational culture.

Think of a knowledge base as a single source of truth for your company's knowledge that's easily accessible and available to every employee. This centralized access is crucial for consistency across your organization's operations and decisions.

As an example, let's imagine your IT department encounters an IT hiccup. A knowledge base aligned with ITIL best practices can point team members to the right runbook or playbook helping to speed up the fix. This immediate access to the right information not only solves problems faster but also paves the way for continual process refinement and efficiency boosts.

But the impact of a knowledge base that contains your company's unique playbooks and runbooks extends beyond IT. In sales and customer service, it standardizes interactions and elevates the quality of customer engagements. Whether it's a newbie or a seasoned pro on your team, everyone has the same level of knowledge and guidelines at their fingertips.

Want to improve your organization's operational efficiency? Dive into Helpjuice and see how our knowledge base solution can kick off your journey towards streamlined processes and enhanced team collaboration with a 14-day free trial.


Q1: What role do SOPs play in comparison to runbooks and playbooks?

A1: SOPs provide detailed instructions for routine operational tasks, focusing on consistency and efficiency in day-to-day activities. They are less technical than runbooks and less strategic than playbooks, often serving as the foundational procedures upon which runbooks and playbooks can build.

Q2: Can runbooks and playbooks be automated?

A2: Yes, both runbooks and playbooks can incorporate automated processes. Runbooks often automate technical tasks to improve efficiency and reduce human error, while playbooks can automate broader operational strategies to ensure consistency and adherence to best practices.

Q3. Are runbooks only applicable to IT departments?

A3: While runbooks are often associated with IT due to their technical nature, they can be applied in any department that requires detailed procedural guidance. Playbooks, being strategic documents, are applicable across all departments, guiding broader organizational strategies and responses.

Q4: How often should runbooks, playbooks, and SOPs be updated?

A4: These documents should be reviewed and updated regularly to ensure they reflect current practices, technologies, and organizational strategies. The frequency of updates can vary based on changes in operations, technological advancements, or shifts in organizational goals.