Should you Ban Excel?

Written by Adrien Charles - 19-01-2017

I see it every day: The 'Excel Nightmare' or the 'Excel Hell'. A situation where a company gets buried under Excel spreadsheets and insanely complex reports. Stuck with people paid to keep spreadsheets alive, others paid to understand them. The bigger the company, the more complex the environment, and the more Excel you see. You would expect the exact opposite. But no, Excel is sticking to the top of the list of the most widely used software. We have better, faster and easier to use software for pretty much everything you can think of. And yet, Excel prevails each time.

The question I'd like to raise is simple, yet the answer is rather complex. How can we prevent the Excel Hell from happening? Should we ban Excel from any new process? Should we not even install it at all? Let's imagine a world without the most common and overused business tool on the planet.

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Why is Excel is the best problem solver?

Before we can dream of a world free of the Microsoft tool, we need to understand why people do what they do. Business users are not data experts and most of them do not want to become one. They have been trained for the last 15 years to use Excel as the "go-to tool" for just about anything you can think of. Literally. You can throw everything at Excel, it will never say no: budget planning, data exports, reporting, KPIs, data entry, data preparation, data blending, forecasting. And the list goes on and on.. It is so easy, that people have used it since their teens. It is completely free of constraints. Users will create their own logic, own vision and own calculations. If you asked a 100 individuals to solve a problem, you would end up with 100 completely different ways of presenting a solution. Freedom, comfort and powerful functionalities have transformed Excel into a business Swiss-knife. Great! Yet, how is that a bad thing?

Yes, Excel will become your worst enemy...

No, I did not have a bad day with Excel and decide to go home and hammer hateful words at my keyboard. I simply see the same situation happening over and over, in all organisations, regardless of their size or industry. The same pattern can be observed. Here is a typical example we have all probably experienced:

The boss has asked for a new dataset, the CFO needs a budget plan for Q2... Before the requester has time to leave your desk, Excel is already open (if you dared to close it in the first place) and you are ready to use all the formulas you know. You are overzealous. Ready to send the most beautiful file ever seen. This is where things begin to fall apart. When you don't see the harm in quickly creating a small spreadsheet that you can send over the fence, and hopefully, never see again. In a perfect world, yes that newly created, small document will answer the initial question, never to be opened again.

However, as we know the reality is very different. That bloody document comes back to us. Worse it comes back with some added logic, an updated formula or if we are lucky with a new question. We answer. We add a new tab, we copy-paste, we filter, add or change a formula and before anyone has a chance to stop the madness… There you have it: The Excel monster. 20 tabs, 7 different versions of the spreadsheet, 5 mins to load it, it takes up your entire Wednesday to update and contains 9 mistakes that no one can even see. The organisation begins to report false numbers. Sometime even worse, those numbers end up outside of the company. This is when Excel becomes everyone's worse nightmare - the CEO, the reporting team or clients even,  receive untrustworthy data.

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Stop blaming Excel, blame people using it...

Let's be fair with Microsoft. They have created a great and powerful tool. So let's not place all the blame on them for once. I would like to quote a certain comic book hero 'with great power comes great responsibility'. And yes, Excel gives you great powers. You are the master, the god, of a very tiny tiny Universe.

The first step to stop the madness and prevent users on jumping on their favorite green icon is to educate them. No need for a large-mood-landing plan. We can all start to implement small changes on how we behave as individuals. Next time though, before jumping in head first on your white table, nose down, take 10 seconds to ask yourself:

- What I am trying to achieve here and do I have a software available that does exactly what I need to do?

- Will this process be repeated over time?

- Will I create my own logic in this file?

- Will others open it?

If the answer to any of these question is yes, then be careful about the next steps. Maybe using the company BI tool is better, maybe creating a 15-person monthly schedule here is not the best. Help your team steer clear of the Excel Hell by slowing down.

Now that you are not part of the problem, you can become part of the solution.

Don't Ban... Offer alternatives...

Anyone who has ever been on a successful diet will tell you that banning 100% of your favorite food is not the right solution. The same applies for all change of habits. Reducing the bad and offering a better alternative will work way better than a hard stop.

Depending on how your company uses Excel, the solution will be different. If it is used mainly for data and everyone is exporting databases and crunching numbers themselves, your data environment may be too restrictive. It pushes people to come up with their own creative Excel solution. You may consider to open a safe data playground where nothing can be broken. If your managers schedule their team resources on the back of the MS office suite, maybe a management tool would help. Maybe you need a combination of 2 / 3 software.

You don’t have the influence necessary to deploy new fancy software? You are not the big boss? Propose a solution and a plan of action. Initiatives have never slowed down anyone's career (if it does, maybe you should consider changing company).

New Software won't be enough...

Cultures are hard to change and habits are even harder to kick. If your team has been using the same tool for 15 years, do not expect them to pick up new software on their own within a week. Training and change management must be planned alongside implementation of your new software. The only thing you cannot control is time. It takes time to change human behaviour, unless too painful.

A great help to drive change is to get "a champion" on your new technology. Don't focus too much on the technical skills. Enthusiastic and comfortable with the new process, these are the type of people you are looking for. You always have a wave of early adopters. Get them to help you promote the change. They will push the rest of the team with you. They will spread the word and assist everyone else. Give first-comers some responsibility on the new logic you are implementing. Efforts will pay off.

Use Excel only for what it is good for: entering and storing a small amount of data. The rest, ALL THE REST, belongs somewhere else.

Have you ever experienced the Excel Hell? How did you get out of it?

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