Why Spreadsheets are Killing Your Business

Aug 14, 2018
Post Masthead

Yes. Spreadsheets are literally killing your business… And here’s why.

Did your heart stop a little bit when you read that?

“Oh crap. We use a ton of spreadsheets in the business.”

Don’t worry — spreadsheets absolutely have their purpose and role in our working lives.

As a business owner or project manager, you probably use spreadsheets / or even Google Sheets for task management, project timelines and tracking, budgets or finances.

You likely use spreadsheets to help you, your business, and your team stay organized in some fashion.

But at the same time, they’re probably doing some very real damage in your business and between your teams (and in some cases, doing a lot more harm than good).

Not only do spreadsheets require a great deal of time and effort to build and maintain, they are also often full of errors.

In this article, we’re going to discuss:

  • How to avoid the spreadsheet trap
  • Where spreadsheets should fit into your workflow
  • What to put in place instead

Why We Use Spreadsheets

We use spreadsheets for the obvious project management tasks: you’re creating a timeline, a schedule, or maybe even a GANTT chart.

You can easily and quickly get everyone on the same page in terms of expected deliverables, deadlines, due dates, and more.

Everyone can see how the project progresses and it helps communicate to stakeholders and clients how they can expect everything to go.

And the more practical reasons make sense, too:

  • Everyone uses Google Drive or Excel
  • It’s easy to pass around a spreadsheet to get everyone’s insights
  • They can handle complex formulas and calculations
  • They give everyone a visual place to see how the project flows
  • We’ve been using them for decades

However — and this is a big however — it does breakdown in ways that you’re probably already experiencing right now.

(Believe me, I’ve been there.)

First, let’s dig into how businesses manage themselves so we can see where the spreadsheet dependency falls apart.

Three Layers of Managing Projects

At Rindle, we believe there’s three layers to managing company projects:

  • Management between functions or departments
  • Management in the team itself
  • Personal productivity and task management — the individual

Every department or team leader has his or her own leadership style, which tiers down into how teams work together, and how the business as a whole serves clients or customers.

Of course, this structure differs depending on the business, but if you think about it, it really drills down to internal tracking — both teams and personal.

For example, each individual team member is responsible for his or her assigned project tasks, project deliverables, tasks related to his or her job functions, one-off tasks, and because we’re humans, personal tasks.

You have your actual internal tasks, either from your manager, trickling down to you as a team member.

You have your weekly meeting — things you have to do for the department or whatever it might be on team projects as well.

On top of that, we all have personal work that sits above everything that nobody else really cares about or needs to see.

So they're either specific things that we need to do for our specific job function, or one-offs that management or other colleagues have asked us to do.

And because different teams have different needs, we end up using completely different software between the teams — probably more when it gets down to personal task management.

As you can see, this is where task management and project management tend to get both granular and lost at the same time.

The most obvious solution would be for teams and individuals to manage all tasks the same way they track client projects.

However, in my experience, internal tasks — the projects for your company that truly matter — end up falling by the wayside because they don’t fall into a specific project.

So, where do they go?

Because most project or task management software is designed to track tasks associated with particular projects and budgets, those random, one-off tasks NEVER make it into the software.

These tasks are picked up by another tracking method, such as post-it notes, handwritten to-do lists, and personal task managers.

But for whatever reason, we try to roll up that task granularity into a spreadsheet.

As a result, these tasks lack standardization, and are less controlled by the organization.

You end up managing tasks in multiple places: the project management software, the spreadsheet, and whatever personal method you’re using.

The Spreadsheet Trap

Now, let’s take a look at Microsoft Excel as an application.

A recent article published by Forbes details some important — and shocking — facts on how businesses use spreadsheets, and why Microsoft Excel might even be the most dangerous software on the planet…

The fact is that Excel spreadsheets and Google Sheets rely on manual processes. Manual processes immediately increase risks for input errors, false or even fraudulent data.

This is especially a concern for organizations in the financial and insurance industries.

Multiple studies on the use of spreadsheets have been conducted over the last decade. In fact, studies have shown that 88 percent of spreadsheets contain errors, and 50 percent of spreadsheets contain material defects.

Not only are these errors and defects dangerous, depending on the industry, they are also costly. They can also lead to job loss, damaged reputations, disrupted careers and business solvency.

I mean, okay. This sounds extreme.

Where does this hurt your project?

Here are some of the top disadvantages to using spreadsheets:

Clunky and Complicated. As we have experienced ourselves, building and using spreadsheets is both easy and adds a layer if complexity. On one hand, Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets are typically at any user’s fingertips.

It is easy for them to open an empty spreadsheet, click a cell, and type. As a result, it becomes an easy, readily available tracking method for users.

On the other hand, spreadsheets are also incredibly complicated.

Advanced users or project managers might build spreadsheets with macros, formulas, pivot tables and in-depth reports, building a monster spreadsheet.

However, the bigger the spreadsheet grows, the more complicated it becomes which means it's likely that someone might mess up a formula without knowing how or when.

Project Management Problems. Spreadsheets might be great for tracking and organizing data and can be great for capturing the big-picture view of the project, but they don't exactly effectively manage project phases, milestones, specific knitty gritty tasks, or deliverables.

Excel simply doesn’t work that way… The knitty-gritty tasks that need to be assigned and tracked would require manual input, updating status columns, and re-sorting data.

As a result, project managers are forced to create multiple different views and tabs. Again, this just adds complication—and risk—to the project.

Decreased Productivity. Spreadsheets are great because they can be easily collaborative — like Google Sheets.

But like any new platform, there's a little bit of onboarding that needs to happen. Most team members won't necessarily understand how to use a particular spreadsheet and the rules for editing, managing the information inside of it, etc.

Furthermore, many team members are often overwhelmed with or afraid to use spreadsheets or even make changes.

Even if project managers templatize their working spreadsheets, this can lead to a ton of wasted time, which reduces project execution, productivity, and puts the project timeline and schedule at risk.

You basically end up building an entire platform inside of the spreadsheet — which is a giant time-suck.

Even More Room for Error. Because spreadsheets are all connected through formulas and other calculations, introducing one error can easily mess up the entire spreadsheet.

Not only does the data immediately become inaccurate, it’s also incredibly difficult to pinpoint what went wrong and where.

In some cases, businesses that rely on spreadsheets to calculate data and organize projects run the risk of making decisions based on incorrect data.

Businesses that are dead set on using spreadsheets for managing business objectives, tasks, products and projects end up backing themselves into a corner.

Avoiding the spreadsheet trap

Here’s the thing — the spreadsheet cycle can absolutely be broken (and keep you from tearing your hair out).

If you’re operating your business or running your project entirely on spreadsheets, there’s a few things you can do to re-evaluate the way you’re leveraging them and if need be, implement a better solution:

  1. Determine the “job” fulfilled by the spreadsheet. You might be using a spreadsheet because you know your boss or CEO is never going to log into your project software and see the project as a whole. You might also be using spreadsheets because there’s no project management system in place or because your client wants to see a high-level view of the project. Whatever the case, identify what that “job” or role it’s fulfilling.
  2. Redefine its “job”. Sometimes, all we need to do is redefine something in order to get what we want. If you’re too dependent on spreadsheets with managing your projects, redefine the actual role you want it to fill for you or your team. For example, declaring that you’re only going to use spreadsheets in terms of storing information or for analysis is a HUGE start! If you find you must use a spreadsheet in some way, then define its limits or its scope. Set rules around how you’ll manage or update it.
  3. Choose a source of project truth. How do you want your team to manage and run projects? Is it through a project management system? By smoke signal? Slack? Whatever it is, choose your source of project truth — the platform where you get to say “It’s not a real task unless it’s been documented in XYZ platform”. I’m biased and would encourage you to take a look at Rindle, but if it’s that, Trello, Asana, or whatever, then awesome!
  4. Define and implement your new process. I recognize how simple this sounds (I know it’s definitely not), but if you can identify the best case scenario for managing projects, I’d highly recommend taking a look at using a visual workflow or kanban. Once you define your ideal process, you’ll need to implement it in your team, between departments, or wherever in the business you need to implement that process.

Moving from Spreadsheets to a Visual Workflow

Efficient project management systems should be automated and streamlined to avoid disconnected data, mitigate risks and errors, and doubling work efforts.

A visual workflow is one example of a project management method that is easy to follow and implement.

Visual workflows also allow project managers and team members to easily and quickly see the status of a project, without relying on any spreadsheets.

This is why our team set out to build Rindle. We wanted to build a system that the masses could easily adopt. Rindle is designed with an easy-to-use dashboard and task filtering capabilities, allowing users to see all their projects in a single view, and within 30 seconds.

We built Rindle to encourage and heighten collaboration among team members and project managers. With only a click or two, project managers can easily see tasks and projects assigned to each resource. No calculations. No formulas. No mess.

How Rindle Can Help

All in all, after speaking with some of our clients and reading their reviews, I think the dream is we all want to use one thing. So, we didn’t want to build a super-complicated platform. The best project management systems today are designed for easy migration, equipped with import functions to allow users or project managers to import a spreadsheet or CSV file into a new project management tool. Therefore, we made sure that Rindle has these capabilities. We also designed templates for easy data transfer, allowing project managers to easily set up Rindle within minutes—a lot less time than it would take to update 20 columns in a spreadsheet.

Rindle also offers high-level reports that calculate the total number of incomplete tasks, completed tasks, new tasks created and other necessary data sets. These data sets are those that project managers might create in spreadsheets in order to get a feel for how productive the team is. This involves creating a manual calculation or graph in order to show this. Rindle provides this right out of the box, directly in the platform.

Finally, if you're working in Excel spreadsheets or Google Sheets, and you know it’s time to move to a visual workflow, then check out Rindle. Moving away from spreadsheets and into a visual workflow will instantly save you time, and even change your life.