Death by Spreadsheet – Project Management In Excel

Quick Take:

  • 750 million users of Excel worldwide
  • Excel has some pluses: ease of use, availability, flexibility, and cost
  • Spreadsheets have their place, but managing a portfolio of projects effectively is not one of them
  • Project Portfolio Management (PPM) requires a governance model and controls with an integrated workflow
  • Projectric Project Portfolio Management software avoids all the negatives of not only spreadsheets, but also of overly-complex, feature-heavy PPM solutions

Excel Conquered the World

Microsoft estimates there are 750 million users of Excel worldwide. And it is no wonder—spreadsheets are a handy tool. But is Excel where you should be managing projects and project portfolios?

We think the answer is a hard no!

There are so many reasons, it’s hard to know where to start to delineate them. But first, let’s examine Excel as a project management platform.

Benefits of Spreadsheets for Project Portfolio Management

Spreadsheets are the project tracking and project portfolio management tool of choice for many organizations because of:

  • Ease of Use—Most business people already know how to create spreadsheets or could learn very quickly.
  • Availability—Spreadsheet applications are on almost every laptop and PC, just a click away. As a result, they have become a standard form of communication for business.
  • Flexibility—Spreadsheets allow non-technical people to do things they never thought possible without learning a programming language.
  • Cost—Because spreadsheets are typically already installed on most laptops and PCs, and creating a spreadsheet can be very fast and easy, they have very low start-up costs, if any.

Spreadsheets offer a very quick, adaptable and inexpensive way to create a project inventory list from scratch. From there, it’s an easy step to grow the use of spreadsheets to try to manage projects. You can create spreadsheets of your project backlog, spreadsheets of active projects, and spreadsheets of finished projects.

It doesn’t stop there. You can also create additional spreadsheets for resource lists with availability projections and spreadsheets of project plans. Some project managers even create project scope statements and other documents in spreadsheets.

It’s easy to see why many project managers run their projects with Excel.

How To Manage Project Portfolios With Spreadsheets

In many organizations, projects are organized into Project Portfolios. A benefit of this technique is generally an improvement in the organization’s ability to monitor and guide projects. Portfolios are often managed with applications that are known as Project Portfolio Management (PPM) software.

Implementing PPM on spreadsheets generally means you’ll be creating multiple spreadsheets, perhaps dozens or hundreds if your organization is large. Once lots of project spreadsheets have been created, the issue becomes how to update the information they contain. The information needs for decision-making frequently change as the project progresses through the lifecycle. For example, while the project is still in the pipeline—pre-launch—it is important for project managers to prioritize when projects are ready to launch. PMs must understand project alignment characteristics, value, the requested due date, and the estimated start date. And change all of these values manually.

This can result in cascading changes in current and backlog project spreadsheets.

Once the project is initiated, the PM’s overarching concern is each project’s health, progress, and likely finish date. These pieces of information require manual changes to the relevant spreadsheets.

Certain functions in the project decision process do not lend themselves to a project list format. Thus, more spreadsheets are required. For example, if a scoring model is used for value assessment, this  typically requires a different spreadsheet with different requirements.

Spreadsheet growth can also be driven by resource availability tables which typically need to be viewed both by resource and by project.

True Project Portfolio Management requires a governance model featuring controls and an integrated workflow. Having a defined process with decision points and requirements for movement from one stage to the next allows an organization to remain in control, be consistent, and make improvements.

Spreadsheets were never designed to be able to implement a workflow, although a spreadsheet guru might be able to do so. However, this is rarely done for a PPM implementation due to the large amount of manual effort required. Even if your spreadsheet guru is up to the task, is this really worth the effort and time to maintain?

All changes are manually entered or altered. That’s a big problem in spreadsheet project management.

Hidden Costs of Project Portfolio Management by Spreadsheets

Many costs associated with spreadsheets are not initially apparent. The large number of spreadsheets, the difficulty to collaborate and share information from these spreadsheets, and the fact that spreadsheets were not designed for certain PPM functions all drive up personnel and other costs. The resulting hidden costs include:

1. Wasted Time

Spreadsheet users waste hours of time consolidating information from multiple spreadsheets and transferring selected information from one spreadsheet to another. Individual users also waste time trying to perfect their own view by resizing columns and rows, justifying text, and many other beautification activities that really don’t add value.

With multiple spreadsheets and duplicative data, personnel waste time looking for and correcting inaccuracies in the data. Or worse, these inaccuracies never get corrected and create a risk to the organization.

Often time is wasted when the spreadsheet builder has to explain the intricacies of their work so others can use it. This is further hindered by the differing skill levels of spreadsheet users. And, given the creators are constantly modifying their work, there is a constant need to explain the changes.

2. Inefficiencies

Inefficiencies from spreadsheets occur in multiple areas. The preferred method of communicating spreadsheet information is usually to email them to others. In some cases, this is completed instantaneously; however, in other instances, there is a delay between when the spreadsheet was emailed and when it was opened. This leads to delays in work and decisions, and as a result, the information needed might not be available to a person when they need it.

Emailing spreadsheets also leads to the potential for multiple versions of the same spreadsheet being updated independently and creating more inefficiencies due to duplication of effort.

The need for special reporting can cause another inefficiency when personnel want to see a subset of the information in the main spreadsheets. This requires generating special views that can be communicated. This practice spawns even more spreadsheet versions.

Without careful governance, massive PPM spreadsheets can be created over time without considering the value of the additional data or the potential of causing data overload. More data does not always lead to better decisions. Often it leads to paralysis or “minertia”—being so bogged down by minutia that you can’t make any real progress.

Along the same lines, spreadsheets have so many powerful data manipulation features there’s a risk of over-analysis of the information, for example, creating new filters and generating pivot tables of data that don’t enhance the understanding of current status.

3. Risks

Spreadsheets can lead to higher risks for data security. Since spreadsheets are quite portable, it can be very difficult to control who has access to them both internally and externally. It is too easy to intentionally or accidentally send a spreadsheet to a destination outside of an organization’s control. Having copies of spreadsheets and data in multiple hands only compounds the potential risk.

There is a potential risk of making a bad decision as a result of the data inaccuracies that manual management of the data often introduce.

Productivity Beyond Spreadsheets

Spreadsheets are a valuable tool and a great place to start at the beginning of a PPM initiative. They are a great personal productivity tool because of their availability, ease-of-use and flexibility. And, they will always play a part in PPM for certain types of reporting and analysis. However, they are not free of cost and can become a very expensive tool when used for a large-scale PPM solution.

Given the potential costs and risks of using spreadsheets, it does not take much of a productivity gain to justify the cost of some of the more affordable PPM solutions on the market. If your employees waste as little as one hour per day with PPM spreadsheets, the costs can be substantial.

It does not take much of a productivity gain to justify the cost of some of the more affordable PPM solutions on the market.

If your employees waste as little as one hour per day with PPM spreadsheets, the costs can be substantial.

For example, let’s say you have 3 employees involved in PPM, they work an average of an hour a day, 200 days per year, and your hourly rate is $50. This adds up to $30,000 per year of wasted expense. For this amount of savings, you could easily get a 10X return on your investment in an affordable PPM solution.

Keep Project Portfolio Management Simple

The proliferation of spreadsheets for PPM is an indication that users have unfulfilled needs. But PMs might be resistant to an unfamiliar PPM solution and to having to abandon the more familiar spreadsheet.

Spreadsheets might seem to be quick and easy, but as we’ve discussed, even these two advantages might not provide the advantage one would think. Any PPM solution is likely to be somewhat less quick and easy, at least at first; it is critical that the solution be uncomplicated and easy-to-learn. The solution should provide familiar spreadsheet-like views and not add unneeded complexity by over-automating the process.

Many organizations have implemented a sophisticated, complicated PPM tool only to see their users fall back to the more familiar spreadsheets. If you want your PPM solution to be used by your organization, keep it simple and ensure it is used as an aid for the decision making that will increase the value delivered by your department to the organization.

Projectric Advantages

It won’t surprise you to know that Projectric Project Portfolio Management software avoids all the negatives of not only spreadsheets, but also of overly-complex, feature-heavy, expensive PPM solutions. It is simple, but very powerful.

Projectric Project Portfolio Management enables organizations to more effectively accomplish:

Let us show you what we mean. Request a live demo or email us at [email protected]