I Wish I Knew How To Quit You, Excel

Several years ago I was attending an AGC IT Conference in Chicago. A confident young construction technology entrepreneur by the name of James Benham took the stage in front of hundreds of attendees and boldly encouraged all of us to “go Excel-less.” This was one of the first times I saw Mr. Benham speak and it was long before the days of the ConTech crew so I wasn’t as familiar with his work as I am now. At the beginning of his presentation I thought, “I love his energy but this dude is crazy. No way that’s happening.” By the end of it I wouldn’t say that he convinced me but he piqued my interest.

I think about that presentation frequently now as I cope with the reality that so much of our critical data is mired in literally thousands of Excel workbooks scattered throughout our file structure. I’d love to see Mr. Benham’s presentation again knowing what I know now. I think my reaction would change to, “This dude was a prophet. Still…no way that’s happening.” There are so many more solutions available to us now that would allow us to make Mr. Benham’s vision a reality. Yet I fear we reside in world where Excel is so firmly entrenched in our day-to-day processes that prying it away from the people who rely on it would be next to impossible.

Full disclosure: I love Excel. That’s part of the problem. It’s versatile and easy to use. Everyone has it. If you don’t pay for some sort of Microsoft 365 subscription you can create a Google account for free and use Google Sheets for free. I’m running an NCAA pool for our office right now and I need to track entry fees. Excel spreadsheet! (I’m tracking theoretical dollars, of course, because gambling isn’t legal. Or is it? I’m honestly not sure where we landed on the legality of sports gambling. I do know that I could win the pool and a few hundred theoretical dollars if Kansas wins tonight, so go Jayhawks!) My daughters participate in gymnastics meets and always want to know their scores. Excel spreadsheet! I’m the envy of every gymnastics parent within earshot whenever I take out my phone and regale my wife with a gem like, “She just had her highest scoring floor routine of the season. Four tenths above her average!” While she rolls her eyes someone else with appreciation for my ability to rattle off such statistics with ease will ask, “How did you know that?” Excel spreadsheet, fool!

That’s part of the problem. Everyone has and knows Excel to some degree. At the very least people know that it’s the green square with the X that they use to open everything from short term interval plans to schedules to meeting agendas to project information to labor projections to rates and countless others. Was it made to do all of those things? No. But it’s omnipresent and your company is likely already paying for it so it’s just sitting there on your computer inviting you to try it. Why pay for some other solution when you already have Excel?

Quite often over the years when we attempt to solve a problem I’m asked, “Can we get 80% of the way there with what we already have?” It’s an astute question to ask, especially since the answer is almost always yes. Excel is often the software that gets us that 80%. Everyone has access to it. They’re already familiar with it so it will require little training. It’s easy to dismiss that last 20% and default back to Excel. We do it all the time.

Eventually you end up with countless bloated Excel workbooks stored all over your network. Many contain the exact same data because there’s no relationship tying them together. Just a lot of people entering the same information in different places. The most heavily used of the workbooks end up crammed full of tabs, links, and complicated formulas that break because someone who didn’t understand the fragile ecosystem had the audacity to go rogue and move something. I hear so many people say they’re getting “formed to death” because we have forms for everything. Somehow I never hear people say they’re getting Excelled to death but that’s how I feel. Every meeting I attend contains a taskbar full of open Excel workbooks including the agenda that we use to run them. We do it so often we’ve stopped thinking about it.

The other problem we have is a lack of vision. Excel has been the default answer for decades and it’s a hard habit to break. People stick to Excel because they are ignorant. I know the word has a negative connotation, but I don’t mean it as an insult. People aren’t aware of better solutions and don’t think to look for them. All too often in meetings the solutions I hear are, “We have a fillable PDF for that,” or, “I’ll make an Excel spreadsheet.” With all due respect, GTFOH with your fillable PDFs. Anytime someone tries to solve a communication problem with a fillable PDF a piece of my soul dies. No, I’m not being overly dramatic. At least an Excel workbook is data that’s usable to a large degree.

I need to challenge people more when this happens. In a recent meeting I was guilty of just nodding along while people were brainstorming ideas that all lacked the vision I thought the situation called for. I felt it wasn’t my place to make such an accusation in that meeting and I got called out immediately after it was over. I tried to defend myself by claiming that I blacked out after the second reference to fillable PDFs but that excuse didn’t work. Earlier in the post I mentioned that Excel gets us 80% of the way there. It’s the 20% that Excel is lacking that could really unlock greatness, or at least greater efficiency. I’m talking about integrations, automation, AI, and graph databases just to name a few things. Not to mention the myriad of software solutions already in existence that could possibly address the exact problem you have. The two most prevalent problems that I hear in construction: We don’t communicate well and we don’t know where to find anything. Excel solves neither of those problems – in fact, having workbooks stored everywhere only exacerbates them – and as long as we remain married to it they will persist.

I’m not recommending that people start deleting their existing Excel workbooks. Cleaning up and modernizing existing data is a task that will take a team of people significant time to accomplish if it’s done properly. We could start by proposing an alternative the next time someone uses Excel to solve a problem. Think bigger. Ask if there’s a better way we can be doing it. There are enough workbooks out there and I don’t recommend adding more. If we begin implementing more effective solutions maybe one day we’ll see that Excel-less promised land James Benham spoke about so many years ago. I’m sorry it took me this long to truly understand it.

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