Spreadsheets: The Devil's Device


Spreadsheets are the perfect device for those looking for trouble.

On the surface, they appear to be straightforward, easy and well-intentioned. How else can you explain their widespread use as a management tool?

Yes, spreadsheets can be fantastic for number-crunching. But even here they have a dark side, as people start to think their “models” represent, forecast, or predict what will actually happen. It’d be nice if things were that simple and predictable.

I’m not sure if it’s the long history of the spreadsheet that has lead to its ubiquity and widespread use for almost anything? Or, is it the universality of the columns and rows format as an organizing structure that just invites it’s use as a default tool?

Whatever the answer, we see even the largest, seemingly sophisticated enterprises using spreadsheets to communicate and manage their strategies and their execution.

This is surely the work of evil. You get sucked in by thinking it’ll be easy to do because you know how to use spreadsheets and it’s easy to create an indented hierarchy of strategies/objectives/targets/etc.

Now it’s got you. You’re committed. You’ve chosen your tool, invested time, input important content and maybe even emailed it to your team...now they’ve been invited into your special circle of spreadsheet hell.

What could possibly go wrong?

Localized not Centralized

Great for the first, one-way download. But then try consolidating changes, roll-up’s or keeping everyone focused what’s important now.

Multiple Versions

There is immediately a problem keeping alignment and focus consistent as multiple versions proliferate and out-date themselves.

No Change History

Forget about answering the question, “How did we get here?”

 Multiple Points of Failure

Any hardware failure, or email mistake or breach, and important information is lost or compromised.

Singular, Not Collaborative

What was done, by whom, and what did we learn individually and collectively? Difficult, if not impossible.

Not Scalable

If you want to cascade your leadership and management system to others easily across your enterprise, you compound each of the above problems.

Viewing Privileges Challenge

You want to easily share some relevant information to some of your team or partners, but keep other information out of view? Sorry, not that easy.

Not Adaptable

Sometimes, in business, events occur (that don’t perfectly coincide with year-end) that require you to rethink and re-prioritize what needs to be done. Try changing and prioritizing on-the-fly while still keeping everyone synchronized with spreadsheets.

Opportunity Cost

If you calculated all the time required to update, consolidate and report on all the spreadsheets, it’d be significant. But imagine what could have been done with that time if used driving performance?

Spreadsheets are great for what they were intended to do. We have seen some pretty incredible implementations of macros over the years which generate some very useful numerical insights. But with management systems, the Devil is in the details. And that’s precisely where spreadsheets can get you into trouble.


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