It’s no surprise that many projects are managed with spreadsheets. People just love working with them, they are simple, they provide tables, views and diagrams, they are fast, clear and agile – you can do everything with them. It takes time and several projects for the veil to lift and reveal just how short-lived the advantage is for the project, and far less time to see the disadvantages staring you in the face.
Five reasons why spreadsheets are just not enough for your project:
1. Not born for projects
Putting it simply, it was born a spreadsheet and as such, it is intended for facilitating calculations. While each cell is a calculated unit with enormous options, a project needs a little more than the ability to calculate numbers, as complex as they me be. The spreadsheet offers links between cells for calculations, but we really need links as dependencies. While the amazing grid creates beautiful tables, we actually need a timeline grid. A project without a timeline is like a body without a skeleton… you can’t move forward without it. Similarly, the spreadsheet, despite its fantastic functionality, lacks the ability to provide forward looking views based on activity chains, relations and most importantly – changes.
2. Static where it should be dynamic
Creating a status snapshot with Spreadsheet is easy. Project managers can put the plan together in minutes, capture action items, responsibilities and a to-do list as fast as they can type. Great! But it’s only a snapshot, how do you use it?
A snapshot created in spreadsheets is a type of report. But while reports are built on data, the snapshot report is built on nothing. It has no backend – no data. Using a snapshot to manage your project feels somewhat like using a report to drive the data instead of the other way around.
This limitation is bound to come back and slap the project manager in the face as soon as he tries to use the spreadsheet to track and manage the project. Changing one block in a block diagram doesn’t change the rest of the diagram. Assigning activities to users without a defined data structure is hard to maintain. After one day, the nice-looking tables quickly turn into museum pieces with yesterday’s irrelevant and unusable data.
A snapshot that cannot be used over time is no more than a snapshot. It is by no means a project management tool.
3. Your own drive drives no collaboration!
The options for collaboration offered by spreadsheets are based mainly on the “share and comment” features. But is it enough? Sharing doesn’t drive engagement, particularly when sharing a hard to understand spreadsheet status update. Moreover, a shared status becomes obsolete a few days after the link is provided – not the best way to engage people to review your project.
Project team members expect collaboration to work as it works in other applications. They expect targeted posts, clear response options and most importantly – visibility on mobile devices. The spreadsheet doesn’t provide any of that. Getting a spreadsheet invite saying: “Review the new project plan with this link”, is like getting a link to an online album of your nephew’s birthday party at day school. Even if you made it to the album, how likely are you to browse through 100 pictures of cute kids? A good and efficient project post should be equivalent to getting a single picture of your smiling nephew holding his birthday cake. This will likely make you smile and may even get a response out of you.
4. You can’t measure it
One critical expectation of project management tools is the ability to measure. Whether measuring task progress, engagement, project coordination, risk, or more complexly, measuring project confidence as the ultimate project score.
True, a spreadsheet can provide some measures, or actually, you can build amazing formulas to do that. The question is, how long will it takes to create these Key Process Indicators (KPIs)? How much effort is required to maintain them updated? How much effort will be invested in explaining them to the project team and in convincing them they are viable measures? You’re getting the gist of things… your project needs your attention as a project manager. While you are constructing some beautiful spreadsheets to describe the project, the project itself will fall apart.
KPIs are not unique to projects. They are required for every process and operation. Building such KPIs for projects requires a strong method, clear calculation rules and the ability to pull the information and present it back to users. While theoretically it can be built into a spreadsheet, practically this is not sustainable and most people give up before even starting the process.
5. Let’s combine our spreadsheets… No way!
Joining spreadsheets that were created by different people or different organization and planning teams, is short of a Nightmare on Elm Street! Even when people describe the same activities, they are likely to come up with spreadsheets that looks completely different.
It’s not rare to find people using all kinds of spreadsheets to tell the same story in a mutual project. They do it because they can’t even think about joining them together. And who can blame them? Trying to combine two tables that don’t share the same column is hard enough, what happens when you throw into the mix a few diagrams, lists, formulas and the creator’s mind set? It becomes Mission Impossible!
Project team members need a common language and good coordination among them as much as they need to use the same tools and formats, all things spreadsheets fall short on.
Is there a bottom line?
Yes. Don’t start your project with a spreadsheet that will inevitably create more work moving on. You need a good project management tool, one that is forward looking, creates a plan that you can change dynamically, one that is collaborative and most importantly – measurable.
The cost of giving up your tables and views is project success. Sounds like good odds to me!