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Do you know what drug your company is addicted to?

Excel spreadsheet addiction

It′s a dark winter night. It′s cold and windy outside. A group of people have gathered in the church′s basement. They′s sitting in the circle, staring down at the floor. There are some stale donuts and cold coffee on the folding table behind them. Finally one man stands up:


”“  “Hello, my name is Scott, and I use Excel” 

”“ “Hello, Scott” , answers the group in unison.

 According to  National Institutes of Health (NIH):

Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain; they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long lasting and can lead to many harmful, often self-destructive, behaviors.

If you think that this definition only applies to people, you′re wrong. Just replace “brain”  with “organization”  and “drugs”  with “spreadsheets”  and read it again.

Spreadsheets in general-and Microsoft Excel in particular-are probably one of the most popular types of software in the world. Excel can be found on virtually any computer. People use it all the time to track their finances, manage their tasks, keep track of their vendors and suppliers, create invoices, track orders and customers and for a million other things.

The biggest reason Excel is so widespread is that it′s awfully easy to use. The entry barrier is almost non-existent ”“ anyone and everyone can open it and start playing with lists and numbers. Like meth or cocaine, it doesn′t take long to start using it and get hooked; then it becomes really, really hard to quit. Using spreadsheets becomes very addictive ”“ you get your results fast without thinking about the long-term effects of your actions. And that′s exactly where the problem lies.

In software development, there′s a concept called  Technical Debt. It happens when you create bad “spaghetti”  code in order to move your project forward quickly. It gives you immediate results, but you eventually have to pay this debt back by re-writing your algorithms. There are consequences if you don′t. First, you might not be able to expand your product functionality later on. Second, your system performance will degrade. Third and most likely, supporting your product will become a nightmare. Similar to the financial debt, you will pay really high interest in time, when the debt comes due.

Using Excel in your company results in an  Organizational Debt, which can manifest itself in a variety of dire consequences:

Culture of Silos

Excel by its very nature is an individualistic product. Using it discourages  team collaboration, simply because it was not built for that. If you want to share your results, you have to manually send the file to everyone on your team, get their input, combine it into a new spreadsheet, rinse and repeat. Even if you resort to using online spreadsheets, you still face the challenge of sharing the document, setting the correct permissions and tracking changes. Yes, it can be done, but it takes a lot of time and resources, which is exactly why spreadsheets never leave the limits of their team in most organizations. As a result, each department tends to work in their own informational silo, and it′s a struggle to get any meaningful data for multi-functional projects or organization-wide metrics.

Loss of Knowledge

Another issue with managing organizational processes using Excel is that it′s usually a single person who creates that master-spreadsheet file. Those people will often protect the sacred knowledge and won′t give anyone permission to make any changes. It can either be a legitimate fear of “they′ll screw it up, because they don′t understand how it works,”  or a desire to retain their unique status in the company.

And what if that Master of Spreadsheets quits, gets sick or is struck by lightning? Good luck finding another volunteer able to or willing to take over.

Innovation Impotence

Over the course of those months or years, that used-to-be simple table can become a monstrous Frankenstein, and its creator will be the only one who can tame or manage that wild beast of a spreadsheet; and that′s the best-case scenario. More often, the Demiurge becomes a powerless Oracle, who only interprets the results spit out by the hornet′s nest of formulas and macros, without daring to touch or change anything.

“That′s the way things are done here,”   is often a direct result of organization′s inability to change the mechanisms powering their internal processes and workflows rather than a legitimate business reason.

Full disclosure: as a project management software vendor, I am biased. Biased the same way an addiction counselor is. Over the years I′ve seen hundreds of businesses ranging from mom and pop shops to teams at Fortune 100 companies who simply could not scale anymore because all of the their processes were based on Excel.

Of course, I′m not the only one who rings the alarm.  Tim Worstall  of Forbes warns:

“Quite simply, without Excel we′d not have had the incredible financialisation of the economy over the past 30 odd years. And if we hadn′t had that then we also wouldn′t have had the financial crash of 2007. So there′s a dangerous piece of software for you.” 

“I don′t have time to learn any new systems. Excel is easy for us,”  you might say.

Yes, it  is  easy. It′s always easier and faster to take shortcuts. Just be ready to end up with a culture of patchworks. The moment you stop taking time to sit down and think about a proper solution, to learn new, better,  more effective ways of doing things  ”“ is the moment you and your team stop innovating. That′s the moment you′ll become preoccupied with putting out fires instead.

Don′t get me wrong ”“ I′m all for recreational use. You need a quick pie chart for your 4:20 presentation ”“ go ahead and fire up Excel. Are you really into  Grumpy Cat  and have a lot of time on your hands? Who am I to judge? Of course, there are also specialized cases that Excel was made for, like crunching large amounts of data. Same as how morphine is a great tool to alleviate pain. That′s its main intention ”“ as opposed to just getting high.

How to fight your addiction

  •  The first step in fighting your addiction is to admit that you have one. You need to list and catalogue all processes that are currently managed with spreadsheets. (Hint: don′t use Excel for this list).
  • Create a plan. It′s never a good idea to go with a big bang approach and try to change things overnight. Pace yourself! Use a slow, but methodical step-by-step process. Rate each process or spreadsheet based on two criteria:
    • Ease of replacement
    • ROI

Start with the items that are easiest to replace,  but will get you the biggest impact.

  • Pick specialized products that were specifically built to manage each domain problem and are inherently collaborative. For example, if you′ve been using Excel to create invoices ”“ consider  FreshBooks. Migrating your spreadsheet-based accounting ”“ look at  Wave Accounting. Personal notes or company′s knowledge base ”“ check out  Evernote. The list can go on ”“ do your research!
  • There will be resistance. People hate change, so be ready to do an intervention. You need to be able to explain the consequences of keeping the status quo. Arrange a screening of  Trainspotting  if you have to! Don′t be afraid to use use bad metaphors or  cliche to make your point.

It′s also a good idea to pick vendors that offer full implementation and training, to help facilitate the transition for everyone in your organization.

It′s a dark winter night. It′s cold and windy outside. A group of people have gathered in the church′s basement. Luckily you are not there. You are sitting in a local pub with the team celebrating yet another profitable quarter. Cheers!

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