The Scary Truth of Spreadsheets

Author: Lindsey Marymont

Spreadsheets are everywhere. They have infiltrated PMOs of all sizes and are wreaking havoc on projects managers costing them precious time and resources to maintain. You may be wondering “if spreadsheets are everywhere and used by so many people, what can be so bad about them?” This might even be validated by the reasoning that they have been around for so long because they are:

  • Flexible – you can create a spreadsheet for just about anything
  • Accessible – they come standard or have free versions we all have access to
  • Easy to use – anyone can fire up Excel, add some data and highlight away

Spreadsheets may have a core purpose of running calculations and are great at statistical and financial operations, but where they fall short – managing projects. Sure, you can manage a task list for one, two, three, maybe even five plans. But what happens when that plan becomes 20, 30, 50, 100, or 500 plus plans? What happens when those plans consist of 100, 200, or 1,000 lines of tasks or activities that need to be tracked? How can you manage that list when a change in one list needs to also update a change in 3 other lists?


Spreadsheets weren’t meant for project management.

The underlying culprit of project failure: spreadsheets. While they may serve a purpose in other areas, projects need more than what a spreadsheet can provide.

  1. Spreadsheets Make Collaboration Spooky: they don’t store files, content, or related materials. Keeping project data centralized is virtually impossible when there are more than one collaborators. Security and permissions are also limited in a spreadsheet. Update one thing and poof- you’ve rewritten history. You might find ghosts in your spreadsheet of information changed with no idea who changed it. Everyone will have their own version of the file and you can’t get all project information without creating more spreadsheets that in turn take longer to compile. 
  1. Spreadsheets House Incomplete Information: You might feel like you’re in a haunted house. You can’t see what’s behind corners, you feel like something more is going on, but the data only shows a single snapshot of information. Trends get lost and numbers won’t tell the whole story – is a “6” good or bad? Get out while you can!
  2. Spreadsheets Are Cryptic: 55% of project managers do not have access to real time project KPIs. Nearly 50% spend a day or more per month manually collating project reports. Does this surprise anyone? According to the State of Project Management Report (2018), 43% of project managers build a resource plan in Excel. Only 22% use a PPM or resource management solution. These are the same organizations that 80% have 1 or more formal PMOs. This time consuming process only results in errors and silos of information that are not centralized. If you’re one of those 43% building a resource plan in Excel, you’re digging your own grave!
  3. Spreadsheets Can Be Mysterious: Just because anyone can make changes, doesn’t mean anyone should. Typically only the creator of the spreadsheet will easily be able to make updates, while the rest of us are trying to figure out how to read the thing. You can try to create templates, but the reality is, there’s no uniform to a spreadsheet. It’s the wild west out there and you’re lucky to stay alive.

Signs Your Spreadsheets are Killing Your Projects

You might have a feeling your spreadsheet has run its course and you’ve outgrown it. We’re not here to tell you that you’ll never see another spreadsheet again – just that your project shouldn’t. Here are a few indicators that you are ready for an upgrade:

  • You find yourself spending more time updating the spreadsheet than using it
  • Finding “up to date” information consists of sorting by the last modified date
  • “Version control” means adding increasingly serious synonyms for “final” to the end (.final2, .finalFINAL, .masterfinal)
  • You need to apply the theory of relativity to update formulas
  • You may have googled how to run a formula in the last month
  • Projects start off with a series of Copy and Paste (followed by a lot of reformatting)
  • Heck, you basically rely on Copy and Paste to run the project!

Where to go from here?

Many project managers know they need (or at least can benefit) from a formal project management tool, but don’t know where to start. Even bringing the subject up will be met with zombie moans that sound something like “but we’ve always done it this way,” “we’ve tried other things. It never works, no one uses it,” or even “it will take too long to migrate all the data. We don’t want to lose anything!”

Once you’ve heard all the complaints and diligently documented them, you can file them away. PMI’s Pulse of the Profession report validates what any project manager already knows: project success is better with formal project management. This means both project management training and tools to support projects. A lot better in fact: 

Project Success

The good thing is it is easy to upgrade to a solution meant for projects and there are a lot of solutions out there. The bad part is – can be hard to know where to begin. It helps to start simple and use a basic list of requirements. Understand what you absolutely need to have and what is a ‘nice to have’ before you start looking at solutions and get distracted from what’s important to you. Be prepared because you might not get it right the first time. Depending on how complex your projects are and what may change over time, it will be impossible to account for everything you might someday need. Get something that isn’t overkill but that you can grow into.

 While you may think a tool to help with project management is not in the budget or an option, you may be wrong. Many senior leaders are aware that formal project management tools increase the chance of success and are considering it. Get involved in the conversation and understand how it can impact your organization.

Don’t Become Another Spreadsheet Victim!

Spreadsheets are where good projects go to die. Don’t let your projects fall short because of spreadsheet limitations. Create an upgrade path to move away from reliance on spreadsheets to a centralized system that provides visibility to everyone involved. Keep a close interest in best fit – the wrong solution won’t help and will only cause more chaos. Research what will support your organization and provide you with a better way to manage your projects. Few PMOs make it out of spreadsheets alive- will yours be one of them?

To learn more, watch this on-demand webinar!