Excel is a go-to tool many people use to manage projects. It can almost be fun adding tasks and to-do items row-by-row when you are starting out a project. Almost.
There are many good uses for Excel in managing a project, but Excel can quickly become a problem as the project progresses. Time is wasted. Data is lost. What started out as simple is suddenly overly complex. Right when you need to focus on executing the project.
Let’s look at some of the reasons you might want to ditch Excel and discuss how you can find alternative solutions that are easier than you might think.
1. It’s All About Bob
So you have that one Excel genius on your team. Let’s call him Bob. Bob is your go-to project data expert. He cranks out the pivot tables on demand. He updates the project tasks and spits out beautiful reports.
However, one thing every project team needs to ask themselves: should your whole project rest on the shoulders of one person? What if they leave or are out sick? What if Bob’s laptop gets stolen at the local Starbucks and Bob did not back up to the cloud?
This is called a “single point of failure.” When one person is the sole keeper of vital project data, the business is at risk.
Moreover, it is not a problem exclusive to the Excel whiz. If you are the project manager whose job it is to go around to each team member and ask them for their task status so you can compile all the data into a report each week, what happens when you go on vacation? Alternatively, are you tasked with starting up a new project?
2. Email is Not Your Friend
When your project data lives in email, tucked away in sent folders and in epic threads that need to be unpacked before you find that one time you wrote that one thing… Well, you probably have once or twice wished for a better system than that.
A recent McKinsey study found that people spend up to 2.5 hours a day looking for information at work. That means digging for the Excel file in an email, chasing up people for updates, searching different drives for relevant documents and trying to pull together information from different sources into one place.
When Excel hosts your project data, it requires a lot of extra time spent on activities to find or replace information. What if you had that time for actual project work?
3. Checked Out for Eternity
Bob has sent you the latest project updates in his Excel doc. You love his pivot tables, but the spreadsheet has been checked out for the past 4 hours. No one else on the team can update their tasks! You have to IM, Call, or email your colleagues to see who has it checked out and remind them to close it. The next time you have a critical issue to address you to walk away from your desk forgetting to check in the spreadsheet.
4. All the way in Column J.
You hate scrolling over to column J. Data gets lost in columns and become stale and useless quickly. The spreadsheet is too wide with too many columns.
Imagine an alternative scenario. Your project data is online, so your whole team can update their tasks without being asked. The guys in the field add videos of their progress as attachments directly on the task rows, which means everyone is working together to keep all the project data in one central place.
Reports are always fresh, up-to-date with all the data in the system.
Collaboration is possible with the right tools and team leaders who open up the project plan for the team to share in.
So if not Excel, then what?
We happen to know a thing or two about online project tools. In addition to all of our free project management training content and resources, we produce online project management software. So we are a little biased. However, we also know a lot about how online tools work and can help you make smart choices that can work for you and your organization.
So, first let’s discuss what online project management can do, and then some tips for you to choose the right tool for you. Core benefits of online project management tools:
- Always up-to-date
- Can be accessed by anyone, via web or mobile
- Online project file storage
- Automatic email alerts
In short, avoiding the single point of failure problem is easy when you run projects online. The cloud is always backed up. Moreover, your team can update tasks themselves. You do not need to have Bob taken away from his other duties to create reports for everyone else. The reports are auto-generated based on the task updates from the team. Anyone can get the reports at any time.
Tips for selecting an online tool
Every team has unique needs, depending on the nature of the project. But there are a few must-haves that you need to make replacing Excel a worthwhile investment:
- Easy Excel importing – make sure you can easily import existing project files
- Interactive Gantt – You don’t need to replace Excel with just an online version of Excel. You want to take advantage of the online automation, such as a Gantt chart, which allows you to adjust tasks dates and milestones easily and automatically updates your team’s tasks lists in the process.
- Timesheets – Why track time in a separate tool when you can track time right with the project tasks as they’re being performed?
- Real-time dashboards – Dashboards are just a collection of reports, like pivot tables. But you don’t need Bob to make them if they’re integrated with the online tool and in real-time.
- Collaboration – You want to improve your productivity, but to do that you need to increase opportunities for collaboration. Look for features that enable file sharing, file storage, chat features and mobile tools.
- Easy to rollout to teams – Not every online tool requires a lot of time or training or implementation costs.
Of course, cost is a factor every team must consider. There are, as you would imagine, enterprise-grade tools and then there are simple task tools, and then there are some that are in between. Ask your teams to identify some key features they would find helpful and do your research with that in mind. And be sure to take advantage of companies that offer free training webinars to show you the tool’s features.
But, who has time for implementing a new tool?
Excel can be very valuable for a lot of project functions, like data analysis and advanced calculations. It can be a good place to start that task list. And it can appear to be a cheap tool, something already in place in an organization. But it has to be seen in the context of the time it takes away from the team, when productivity can be radically increased. Think about 2.5 hours a day times 5 per employee! That’s a lot of looking for information that could be better spent.
Even if that’s a super high estimate, it’s not hard to imagine spending 30 minutes every day here and there searching for that email or file. And that’s just you. So your 2.5 hours per week times your whole team… how do you not have time to put in place a tool that can save you from the single point of failure and increase productivity?
When you’re looking for a new tool, ask the customer service teams of the companies you’re vetting whether they’re there to help with onboarding your team. Check review sites to compare customer service reports. When you make a new investment, there will be some hiccups, as change is hard in an organization.
But you can find a tool that doesn’t require dev time to implement or costly training programs with your team.