How do you run a project steering group? What do you need to do when you’re starting a new client project? How do you report sickness? How do you publish a job vacancy? How do you ask for time off? What do you need to do when a member of staff leaves?

How do you do all the things that need to be done to make the business work?

These are important questions that are asked every day in businesses of all kinds, but too often the answers are found in a range of different places. Some are written down. Some are just inside someone’s mind. Some are in paper copies only. Some are digital, but only in a Word document on one laptop. Others are in a variety of digital formats.

A playbook is the antidote to all that.

What is a playbook?

Sometimes called employee playbooks, handbooks, or a number of other names, a business playbook is the central place where you document how to do stuff. As well as covering what the stuff is that you do, playbooks often also include why you do stuff, why you do stuff that way.

A playbook gathers all the company’s ‘plays’ into one place — one book of plays.

It’s a collection of guidance notes all pulled together into one central place:

  • Guides
  • How-to instructions
  • Help cards
  • Processes
  • Procedures
  • Policies

In theory, then, anyone in the company can follow the guide for a given play, if they needed to — any one of your staff could play in any position.

Why do you need a playbook?

Your business needs a playbook. Full stop. If you don’t have one already or are not thinking about creating one, you should do.

There’s lots of reasons that your business should have a playbook. Here’s several.

Because questions

Firstly, questions arise. Your team members need answers — they need to know what to do. To prevent those questions always coming back to you, or to the same few people who know the answers, you need somewhere they can go to look stuff up.

I think a good simple rule is just ‘write everything down!’. Being over verbose is way less of a problem than leaving something out, because the person reading might do so when you are not around to answer follow-up.

Tom Willmot, CEO, Human Made

To help with scaling

Second, you need a playbook so that your business, whatever its size, can scale. There are times when people will need to do tasks that are not part of their normal work, or something they don’t do very often. In order to make sure someone can play out of position, you need a playbook.

For professionalism and consistency

That means that, third, it helps your company to operate with professionalism and consistency towards both its staff and its customers. All your team are able to run the play together in the same direction towards a common goal.

To be clear, open and transparent

Playbooks are also about clarity and healthy transparency within the business. In a playbook, your policies, processes and practices are found together and that means it does several things simultaneously:

  • It portrays the company’s character openly, for all to see;
  • It shows how the company’s values are embodied in the way it does stuff;
  • It embodies the culture of your business, in describing the way you do things;
  • It records how you have solved problems and turned them into practices.

For sales; for recruitment

Playbooks are also a sales tool, often. Many playbooks are public, either in part or in full. By publishing your policies, processes and practices openly, a playbook demonstrates the way that you work in the open. Your current and future customers can see your sales process, which allows them both to know what to expect and to picture themselves within it. Prospective staff can view both your recruitment process and your working practices and decide whether your company is the right place for them.

Sid Sijbrandij, the CEO and co-founder of GitLab has this interesting allegory for a playbook:

I think of it as brick laying. Every piece of information is a brick. At GitLab, there is a well-structured house, and everyone adds to that one house. Because we're pretty particular on how we build it, it has a strong foundation and we can build it very high.

In every other company, they send the brick into the hands of people. Everyone is receiving bricks daily that they have to add to the house they're building internally. They forget things and things are unclear. A lot of context has to be created because there is no context around where to place the bricks.

— Sid Sijbrandij, GitLab co-founder and CEO

Your next play: read the full What Works

Inspired to create your own agency playbook? In our latest edition of What Works on Agency playbooks, we've explored how to get started, and evaluated market-leading tools for publishing your playbook.

  • What should be in your playbook?
  • Creating content
  • The publishing process
  • Picking the right platform
  • Platform evaluation
  • Playbooks to learn from

Our in-depth report is available now.

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