Does Spreadsheet Project Management Guarantee Failure?

It’s a bold question, and one we’ve been asking ourselves for years as we’ve seen thousands of unmanageable spreadsheet-based “project plans” come across our desks.

There are scores of reasons that people choose spreadsheets for project management. Here are some pretty common ones:

  • “My project is short and sweet–a spreadsheet should cut it.”
  • “I don’t want to spend the money on a real project management system.”
  • “Our organization really doesn’t have the discipline to formally track a project.”

Believe it or not, these are all pretty reasonable excuses, and at the end of the day, it’s not these thought processes alone that kill projects. In fact, we see hundreds of successful projects out there that are managed in spreadsheets.

What kills projects is the lack of visibility, since spreadsheets do a very poor job of condensing and reporting key project deliverables. Fortunately there’s an automated way to improve visibility using OnePager Express, our project reporting add-in for MS Excel.

Let’s take a look at a simple project plan that’s being tracked in an Excel spreadsheet:

Project plan tracked in a spreadsheet

This format is easy enough for the project manager to maintain, since he or she can simply type in key deliverable dates. However, this format is a death-wish from a reporting perspective. Throw this table into a PowerPoint presentation and you’re guaranteed to confuse your team, provided they pay attention in the first place.

So what happens next? The poor, spreadsheet-bound project manager realizes that some kind of visual is required. Since the data is already in a spreadsheet, it makes sense to incorporate graphics into that same spreadsheet, right?

Manual Gantt Chart Created in an Excel Spreadsheet

Wrong.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever done this–we won’t judge. The example is what we call a “paint-by-number” Gantt chart. It’s a good exercise for your preschooler, but I think we can all agree it’s a little beneath the project manager!

All kidding aside, there are a number of reasons why these manually-created visuals are a bad idea:

  1. Time: They take a lot of time to create, and you have to update them by hand whenever your project plan changes.
  2. Precision: Because you have to use a cell for each unit of time, you often end up with a chart that is gridded on a monthly or weekly basis, which doesn’t accurately reflect real delivery dates.
  3. Accuracy: Like anything created manually, there is room for human error, and sanity-checking for these errors is a very tedious process.
  4. Details: This format makes it difficult to graphically show other important details like progress, resourcing, or dependencies.

There is a better way. Chronicle Graphics’ OnePager Express app is an add-in to Excel that builds project reports straight from your spreadsheet:

OnePager-Express-Chart

OnePager Express creates what we call “Gantt Art“–colorful, easy-to-understand reports that are based on your existing project plan, even if your project plan is in Excel. And it does so in seconds instead of hours like the paint-by-number job above.

So if you want a guarantee that your project will fail, try implementing the following:

  1. Not showing up to project meetings
  2. Not defining the scope of your project
  3. Not paying attention to budget or deadlines

But in general, trying to manage your project out of a cluttered spreadsheet is right up there as well, so do your team a favor and visualize! We’ll be happy to help.

Download a 15-day free trial of OnePager Pro