Why Excel is not a project management tool.

I’ve been around many companies in my time as a consultant and I’m always amazed by the number of business that uses Excel as their project management tool.

While there are a great many Project Management Software tools out there Excel tends to be ubiquitous, it’s one of those tools that is on everyone’s desktop, available usually to all, and as such allows everyone to collaborate using a common tool. That in itself is not a bad idea, however…..

While there’s often discussions that the reason Excel gets used is because businesses are too prudent and restrict spending on Project tools I don’t tend to agree. The general ubiquity of Spreadsheet tools usually determines it becoming the tool of choice whether it’s appropriate or isn’t. And once it’s embedded it’s more difficult to remove.

Firstly let’s look at what it’s good at. Excel is a premium tool for analyzing data – it’s great, amazing even, it’s my main tool that I use outside of Project software, used appropriately it adds considerable value. But as a project management tool it sucks. But why is dedicated Project software more suitable than Excel – what exactly is wrong with it…

Here’s my 5 reasons why Excel shouldn’t be used to manage projects

1/ Project Management is a team game.

Yes, I know, excel files can be shared but access to appropriate data is a key issue for me. The very fact your using excel and not a “constrained tool” i.e. designed for projects is that you’re going to run into errors, people need to know how you’ve Project-ified your spreadsheet so they know how to change/update it. As your project proceeds mistakes are likely to add up. It can be a devil’s own job to keep the spreadsheet running as you intended it, fixing issues (whether formatting or otherwise, from users who are unaware of exactly how you want it used.)

2.) Insufficient details get recorded
While it’s great at storing data in lists and tables, Excel can be very “clunky” to retain high levels of details about tasks, resources, costs etc. Most that try, attempt to capture pertinent information on a particular row but it can be very challenging to ensure this detail is maintained. In contrast, many Project software tools have these details built into the GUI so cannot be avoided.

3/ Dependencies get lost
I’ve yet to see an Excel Project sheet that captures dependencies appropriately. All too often it ends up being the Project manager that has a level of understanding of the dependencies and attempts to capture them on the spreadsheet but ends up retaining key information in their head (ie. The spreadsheet needs interpreting). When things change, what should be a quick update ends up being a mountainous task not just entering information but updating the cosmetic part of the spreadsheet.

4/ Lack of flexibility
While Excel has some really good analysis tools, scenario planning, risk planning etc are all left out in the cold (most spreadsheets just end up being a souped-up Gantt chart). Tracking changes becomes complex and you rely on everyone being an excel super user (pivot tables anyone?) in knowing there way around the plan.

7.) Too many manual actions required
Reporting, Project role ups, inter-dependencies, resource planning etc etc. Common project tasks require a process and while there’s normally a way round by using excel when you add all of these together it can consume a large amount of time in just getting the basics done.

Life after excel
If you’re a project manager I’m guessing that at one stage you’ve run projects in Excel. Making the decision to use an appropriate tool from the outset (or indeed transitioning from excel to a project tool) can result in huge efficiency gains amongst the project team, ensuring that everyone is able to play their part and execute their role effectively.

Once again, I have nothing against Excel, It’s a great tool and my second most used application but as a project manager I want to use a tool that’s fit for purpose right out of the box.

Have some views on Excel as a project management tool, we’d love your feedback in the comments section below.