Trapped in project management spreadsheet hell?

by admin on January 10, 2011

When organisations start implementing project management and portfolio management processes they quickly realise they need a tool to help them. Think of all the things you need to do – keep a central register of projects, track who is doing what and when, build resource forecasts, produce status reports, deliver fancy graphs to the executive team to help them understand what projects they are spending all their money on. The list is endless. spreadsheet-hell

No problem, you just crank up Excel and start creating a bunch of spreadsheets. Two hours work later and taa daa… the perfect project management solution. And the best part is, it didn’t cost a penny.

Given minimal effort and no cost you have a solution in place. For these reasons, spreadsheets are the project management tool of choice for many organisations large and small. But there is the nub of the problem. Pretty soon you have project management spreadsheets appearing all over the place, doing things differently, not connecting up and in many cases doing things just plain wrong.

Spreadsheets will end up costing you a lot more than a tool dedicated to the job. So let’s take a simple example of using spreadsheets to track the most basic of project management requirements – a list of projects and their status…that has got to be really easy.

In the beginning there was a single project spreadsheet where all the projects in the organisation were listed. Fantastic, now we know what we are doing. But hang on, we need to know how each of those project is going – are they on track?

So we get each project manager to open up the spreadsheet and update their projects. But Joe can’t – because Bill in R&D has it already open.

Ok, so we start emailing out the spreadsheet and getting people to update it. Until we lose track of which version is which! There must be a better way of doing this.

Ok, why don’t we get each project manager to email Joe with the status of their projects and Joe can put the updates in. Hmmmm.

And you have this problem for all the different things you are trying to track. Project requests, issues, risks, tasks, budgets, status… the list goes on.

Ok, you get the message. Here is why we think spreadsheets for project management will be the most expensive project management tool you didn’t buy.

Spreadsheet explosion

Very quickly you will end up with spreadsheets all doing something slightly different. Each project manager “tweaks” the spreadsheets to get them just right for them. And right away you have created a massive overhead when it comes to trying to find and consolidate project information.

Maintenance cost

With spreadsheets the money you save by not buying a project tool you end up spending on staff costs. Updating all those spreadsheets takes time. A lot of time that could be better spent elsewhere on more productive activities. The PMO in a mid-sized organisation we worked with was updating over 35 different spreadsheets to keep track of their projects, time spent and resource forecasts many of which were interconnected.


We have seen some beautiful spreadsheets, stuffed full with errors. Take an example such as using a spreadsheet to forecast resource demand. Yes it can be done, but is pretty complicated and very error prone. One prospect we engaged with shared their current resource planning spreadsheet with us so we could understand their process. A simple error in the sheet meant they calculated they needed 12% more staff to execute on their projects than they really did. With over 50 resources, that was quite a blip.

Email and sharing

How do most people communicate spreadsheets – email. Multiple versions, people updating the email version… Need we say more?

Spreadsheets do have their place and in project management and PMO’s. But they should not be the core tool used; their value is around performing on the fly analysis or reporting. Not in being a project management tool or PPM tool. Why not take a look at our project management solution and leave your spreadsheets behind?

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