The Magic Spreadsheet: An obstacle to project management
The Magic Spreadsheet: An obstacle to project management
Jim Bratsakis Posted by Jim Bratsakis

Jim Bratsakis relishes sharing knowledge and ideas that result in productivity gains for individuals and corporations.

During my time on the road in project management consultation, one of the most fascinating things I see is the “magic spreadsheet”. It seems most companies have one, with its reputed magical properties that have been handed down throughout time, like a Rosetta Stone.

Management teams often believe that only an enlightened few possess the power to comprehend its unique financial hieroglyphics. And no one is eager to admit it’s “Greek” to me!

This magic spreadsheet amasses accounting rubrics from several other spreadsheets, and like the Borg, assimilates them to become part of the collective miracle—using, of course, special formulas developed in 1943. Its dictums provide management with a basis for bonus calculations, business forecasts, performance assessments, and much more.

It’s important to note that the original mythical and unnamed inventor of this voodoo—and the guy who asked for it in the first place—are vaguely described as people who are no longer there.

And, this spreadsheet is an obstacle to successful project management.

Office busywork?

The movie “Office Space” features a character who never does his “TPS” reports. Eventually it’s discovered that TPS reports don’t actually serve any purpose, but everyone needs to fill them out.

The magic spreadsheet smacks of the TPS report, and it can become a political problem. Sometimes, there’s a person in the organization wielding the magic spreadsheet like a power broker; always in a hurry to show everyone who’s in control.

The spreadsheet faces off with project management software

Here’s where the magic spreadsheet can sabotage a big project. The belief is this: The magic spreadsheet has to be replicated in order for the project to roll out. It’s irrelevant that the spreadsheet is inaccurate, tedious, or out-of-date. Someone is asking to retrofit the project management plan to another era.

But what happens when we set up a big project in project management software? Now we have to define every piece of data relevant to the project, and put it into a database. When we precisely standardize every component in a leading-edge project management application, the magic spreadsheet pales and shakes in its boots. The magic spreadsheet is about to become a lowly piece of toast.

The fact is, with project management software, we can disseminate more information, more accurate information, and more relevant information faster than the magic spreadsheet ever could. We can forecast money. We can forecast resources. We can create timelines. And the output will be valid.

This efficiency kills the magic spreadsheet. No longer do we have multiple, nebulous data sets. Instead, all the information is in one robust database that can do all the reporting. The process is fully transparent. You always know where your project stands.

Information: What really matters?

Here is a perfect example of irrational devotion to the magic spreadsheet: a large utility company that produced a spreadsheet report we’ll call the “John Brown Report”.

“John Brown” was an executive for whom someone had created a monster spreadsheet that would take 7 to 10 business days to compile. No matter how well the team centralized all the data and provided viable project assessment on a near real-time basis, the John Brown Report trumped all.

Finally, I asked the obvious question (a genetic thing with me): What does John Brown want to see?

While it took a few months to get to him, we discovered that he hadn’t ever asked for that report at all. The project management dashboards we provided were just fine.

All someone had to do was ask.

What information really matters to you as you roll out your next big project?


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