Do spreadsheets have a role in project management?

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Whatever business you are in, it’s likely that somewhere in your organization there is a person or team responsible for project management.   

If they are handling multiple projects, juggling the grouping of projects, overseeing work flows and allocating tasks, their job becomes more about resource planning. That means they need a firm grip on who is doing what, where, and when – and must determine whether all resources are being used in the smartest way. 

They can use a variety of tools to help organize the resources at their disposal, which may be people, equipment, machinery, or office space. Some people schedule resources using Excel spreadsheets and an assortment of other unsophisticated tools, including calendars, whiteboards, and notepads. Whether these choices are made because of economy, or lack of knowledge of a better alternative, their failure to use specialist resource planning software is probably costing them time, money and the respect of team players and senior management. 

How spreadsheets sap time

When using spreadsheets, it is a laborious process to manually create settings, duplicate data and calculate resource utilization time. Spreadsheets also hate change - if you have ever been through the mind-numbing process of merging and unmerging cells to adapt a resource plan in Excel you will be painfully aware of its limitations and ability to drain the hours from your day.

As a collaborative tool, spreadsheets perform badly. It’s very hard to coordinate entries by multiple people into the same spreadsheet. Once it has been emailed to the team, no-one knows what changes others are making, or which is the latest ‘definitive’ version to work from. This can draw out the process of planning and create extra work for someone to sort out conflicting modifications.   

No shortage of data, but what does it mean?

Excel can generate huge amounts of information. This is great for those who are familiar with the software, but it can be a minefield for those who don’t how to make the most of its analytical capabilities. Without proper training, the vast quantity of data represented can be difficult to scrutinize to produce meaningful insights. Unclear or misleading information arising from poor data analysis and reporting can lead to weak business decisions, which move companies in the wrong direction. 

There’s no looking back   

Hanging on to historical data can be an issue with Excel spreadsheets, whereas purpose-built resource planning software is often well-equipped to provide detail on how a plan has developed and shifted, plotting out key moments in a project’s timeline.   

Some may argue that being retrospective is not helpful in business: Why look back when you should be moving forwards at all times? However, project managers we meet generally share the opinion that being able to see what’s happened in the past, what’s worked and what hasn’t, is key to the learning process and helps ensure greater project success going forward. Spotting trends and common pitfalls helps them to reflect and make informed decisions that help their business to thrive.   

The cost-saving illusion 

Many business leaders balk at the idea of spending money on specialized software for resource planning, preferring to plod on using Excel, which they perceive to be cost-free as it is something they already have. However, in reality, Excel spreadsheets are not the right tool for the job of resource planning – nor are they a free option. License fees must be paid for each machine the software runs on, and there will be additional costs for updates and maintenance.   

Get respect for better planning 

Spreadsheets’ failure to allow real-time collaboration can lead to costly breakdowns in communication. In addition, they are not well adapted to the process of tracking resource utilization and workloads. As a result, project leaders can make ill-informed decisions that lead to under-challenged or overworked team members.   

Whether employees are bored, or on the brink of burnout, problems arise from not achieving balanced workloads. When an employee’s talents are not being nurtured, it can cause resentment. On the flipside, if they feel under too much pressure, they can easily drop a few balls and fail to meet deadlines. When this happens, they can become the scapegoat for project failure, which is bad for their health and self-esteem. 

For a happy, positive team culture, it’s important to use software that creates clarity of the overall vision and of individuals’ responsibilities. With transparency over who is accountable for what, their milestones, deadlines and task dependencies, both the team and senior management will be reassured that projects are on track.   

Ditch Excel to be effective and efficient 

Clearly, project management resource planning is best achieved with a tool that’s been designed specifically for this purpose. Software that facilitates productive teamwork and can be adapted as the plan shifts. There are lots of resource planning platforms available, so it’s important to compare their features and ideally trial software for free to find the right match for your business.   

Some features to look out for that make for more effective resource planning include: the ability to see real-time updates, drag-and-drop scheduling, easy data visualization and reporting, custom views to see both the big picture and the detail, custom color schemes, task milestones and dependencies, resource utilization tracking and Google calendar synchronization. 

The impact of choosing the right tool for the job can be huge. Better leadership, and improved communication and teamwork will make it much easier to complete projects on time and on budget. Allowing managers to move resources around quickly, and to identify issues before they cause significant problems, creates greater efficiency.   

Within a turbulent global economic climate, businesses must seek smart methods to foster clarity and a shared vision among all employees. As a tool for resource planning and project portfolio management, Excel may have had its day.

Ivar Veenpere, Co-Founder of Ganttic