Kicking the spreadsheet habit: upgrading to a project management tool

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People often automatically turn to Microsoft Excel when they want to organise a project. It’s usually part of their software toolset and most have used it for basic spreadsheet tasks. But unless you’re a numbers guru or tasked with financial modelling and analysis, it’s hard to see how Excel can meet the project management and collaboration needs of today’s global work teams. In fact, when one looks carefully at the risks and complexities of using spreadsheets to manage a project, they may actually just be creating additional work and confusion.

Spreadsheets are inherently complex and complicated

The most effective teams include experts with a wide array of skills and roles—and different information needs. However, Excel doesn’t let you create personalised views for each individual with different levels of access. Which means that everything gets dropped into the spreadsheet, and team members are burdened with sorting through to see what’s relevant to their unique piece of the project.

Spreadsheets don’t set up teams for success 

If you’re a writer, designer, scientist, sales rep, or other employee who doesn’t routinely use Excel, your productivity can fall off a cliff while you try to decipher dozens of columns, rows, and tabs. You’ll probably just take the information you know you need and move it into a tool that’s easier for you to navigate and use—maybe Microsoft Word, Salesforce or Adobe InDesign. Using Excel can inadvertently cause a team to create multiple files of valuable project information in different formats and store them in different places.

Even if you are familiar with Excel, it wasn’t designed for managing tasks and lists in a consistent manner. Different people work with lists in different ways. When used in lieu of a true project management tool, having multiple approaches to the way lists, tasks, or other content items are organised can cause confusion for team members and discontinuity across the project.

Locked in Excel with no way out

Individual, tailored views of data with different administrative privileges are necessary when managing a project. That’s why when people use Excel for project management, they often create their own versions of the spreadsheet and version control becomes problematic. Needless to say, this is the first step on the road to chaos, as well as being a consistent time suck. When a project reaches this point, it’s nearly impossible to ascertain whether you have the most current data.

For instance, let’s say you create an Excel report on Friday for a Monday meeting, and over the weekend a team member updates some financial information. You don’t know whether the formulas are correct, whether the cells are delivering the data you expect, or even whether there are just plain typos in the numbers. With multiple Excel files in multiple places, reconciling data is no small feat, not to mention very inefficient.

This becomes especially risky when a project relies heavily on numerical data, financial calculations, third-party models, and analysis. Spreadsheet inconsistencies, errors, and assumptions have led to extreme risk for organisations. These nightmares have become so common that the European Spreadsheet Risk Interest Group (EuSpRIG) has compiled a list of business horror stories from leading financial institutions, pharmaceutical companies, and other enterprises around the world who have taken anywhere from a $6- to $55-million loss or experienced a sharp drop in share value simply because their spreadsheet formulas were off.

Limited functionality ultimately creates more cycles

Spreadsheets don’t easily store files or conversations, enable file sharing or activity tracking, support discussion boards, or provide at-a-glance updated data. It is difficult to alter timelines or timestamps of actual activity easily. Spreadsheets also can’t track dependencies (if they are not numerical), don’t allow you to add tasks, and can’t deliver individualised action item lists. It becomes nearly impossible for a team to efficiently and productively track progress in order to make smart, outcome-based decisions. At this stage, your options and capabilities are finite, and unless you move to a project management tool, your dated spreadsheets will hold you hostage.  

Spreadsheet liberation: Transitioning to project management in the digital workplace

Without a doubt, we have seen a true paradigm shift in how we communicate with teams in the new digital workplace. Collaboration and project management tools have become so fundamental to the work day that there is now undeniably a quest for a tool that provides a highly efficient, seamless, intuitive collaborative experience. We want anything that shaves cycles and hours from our day. This is why many teams have moved far beyond spreadsheets and are much more keen on real-time communication and file sharing, task prioritisation, and project management. And work teams are now demanding a single source for team collaboration—a place where they can manage all of their tasks, discussions, and file sharing.

Today’s teams are not settling for anything that creates extra cycles, compromises workflows, reduces productivity, or is inefficient. Spreadsheets simply no longer fit into the collaboration formula and cannot keep pace with real-time project management requirements. In this new app-centric world, users tolerate inefficiencies and work cycle increases about as well as a root canal. An intuitive, real-time project management app can help users access projects, tasks, files, calendars, and chat from any device in real time—no matter where they are.

Many of today’s innovative project management solutions are seamless and easy to use—you can be up and running within minutes. You don’t have to be a project management, Excel, or specialised software expert to get the desired results.  Work teams can easily import current projects and choose from an array of project planning templates that sets you up for success and efficiency right out of the gate.

Best of all, team members can collaborate and share documents in the forms that are best suited to their information needs. Team leads can delegate and assign tasks easily, making responsibilities clear and effective. Team and private workspaces keep everyone on track without miring them in irrelevant information that is ultimately useless. Project charts and timelines can be created instantly, so that everyone can visualise project status at a glance. Many project management apps are designed to integrate seamlessly with Box, Google Drive, Evernote, Gmail, and OneLogin, among others. 

Trying to keep it all together in email threads or multiple spreadsheets is nothing more than a recipe for disaster. And when your team has crossed the chasm and is serious about managing projects productively, the optimal solution is to deploy a project management tool. These tools offer real-time work spaces in which global team members and outside partners can keep details and projects up to date. The good news is that the latest project management tools are now fuelling highly productive, effortless team collaboration around the globe every day. 

Jeff Harrell , VP Marketing at Redbooth 

Jeff Harrell

Jeff is VP of Marketing at Redbooth. He has more than 20 years of experience in marketing and product management leadership roles, creating high-growth enterprise software businesses. His areas of expertise include collaboration software, cloud technology, threat intelligence and compliance.

He is a strategic marketing executive focused on increasing the growth and profitability of technology products and companies through clear vision, data analytics, technical and creative skills, and expertise in SaaS and on premises software marketing to enterprises of all sizes.