Why Excel Spreadsheets Hurt Project Management

Creative Commons License Elaine with Grey Cats
Today was a great day. I helped import our entire “roadmap” of functional requirements from an Excel spreadsheet into Pivotal Tracker. Even though we allocated almost a half-day to accomplish this, it was done in less than two hours (including in-depth descriptions and backgrounds on many features I hadn’t yet seen).

The product manager’s eyes lit up when I showed him how priorities were set (drag & drop, top story rules) and how easy it was to add screenshots to stories (again drag & drop). He spoke often about the pain that spreadsheet caused him and the entire team. Ironically enough, just before we were to sit down and do the migration, he realized he’d lost the changes to the spreadsheet made last week in the team meeting! A fitting farewell from an overly abused project management tool.

Lack of Transparency

Unless you’re using Google Docs or are a “lucky” user of the new MS Office 365, your spreadsheet program is most likely Microsoft Excel. Doing PM using Excel is like playing darts in the dark. Though it might be exciting for the “thrower” (Project Manager), the rest of the team is cowered in the corner hoping not to get hit.

The PM finishes editing the spreadsheet, and attaches it to an email sent around to key stakeholders and the big boss. Other edits are made and sent back to the PM who has to manually merge the changes back into the “master” file. Maybe you’re lucky and this “master” file lives on a shared network drive.

Even so, how many copies of this spreadsheet have been distributed? When you show up to project meetings, it’s not surprising to see teammates frantically clutching months-old project plans in their sweaty fists – half-convinced they’ve blown the release date.

Agile project management demands one online, accessible plan shared to the entire team. Features and functionality are updated so quickly today (even in large enterprises), that trying to keep up with an email file attachment is just ridiculous.

Lack of Clarity

Spreadsheets are optimized for one thing – calculations. Oh, and they make pretty graphs. Project management? Check out cell G9 : =$A$4-B$7. WTF?

Regardless how the PM tries to push a feature matrix into a spreadsheet, it comes out half-assed and confusing to everyone else in the room. We’re all considerate human beings and we really try to understand what the guy meant when he created this thing last nite at 1:30am, but it’s hard.

Then there’s this unspoken rule about never deleting anything from the spreadsheet. Because, after all, there’s no version control or history available on this thing, right? So there are items that are “struck-out” or grayed-out (or both) – reminds me of the current problem we have up in orbit with space debris.

Between the chaotic layout and ever-growing cruft, it’s damn near impossible to sort through one of these sheets a year into the project.

If you’re serious about project management, invest in a real tool (online or offline) and get the hell out of your team’s way!

Insufficent tools cause bifurcation

As the spreadsheet is such a pain, you can’t do ad-hoc type requests there. Take bugs, for example. Since we needed a real tool for managing these, the decision was taken to use Sharepoint’s BugTracker – an intranet based tool that is hard to use, harder to understand and provides little integration with non-Microsoft based source code repositories and build tools.

This is next on my list of TODOs – migrating these bugs directly into Pivotal Tracker. Afterwards, we’ll have a single source of truth for our project management process and a much better overview of who’s working on what and when we can expect certain features to be delivered.

What are the strangest project management tools you’ve run across in your work?

5 thoughts on “Why Excel Spreadsheets Hurt Project Management

  1. Nevertheless Excel is probably still the most used tool. It’s just very easy to use and there are just many crappy good project management tools out there with too many features, that make the application slow.

    I though agree. Excel is not made for pm!


  2. I’m a big fan of online PM software but I haven’t got to convince my partners to move from Google Spreadsheets for managing projects. I have to admit that in a spreadsheet you can edit and go through the data superfast. You don’t have to click an edit button or go to a new page, you just go to a cell and update it with a keystroke. In Google Docs all the team always works in the lastest version for adding and editing tasks or comments in real time. Also we’ve used Google App Scripts to build a Hit List sheet that lists the top tasks for every member, but unfortunately you can not edit tasks in this view, neither get a link to the original one. I’ll check Pivotal Tracker, do you know Smartsheet?


  3. There are even books on “Projectmanagement with Excel”. You’re doomed if you see your PM with one of these …


  4. Be aware that Google is able to open/search/get to know your Google Docs – not very smart to put sensitive company information into a cloud service hosted anywhere in the world under US rights. ie. Asian/European companies and Google Docs is a no-go.


  5. Maybe I should change the title to “Why Spreadsheets Hurt Project Management” for clarity. I am certainly not endorsing Google Docs for doing PM!

    I just want people to understand the importance of a single source of truth. Take a look at PivotalTracker, Interstate, Basecamp if you’re uncomfortable about Google’s prying eyes.


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