Do you think in spreadsheet?

I’ve been observing something. I have thousands of spreadsheets and I suspect that over 95% of them are lists of things.

They are huge tables of information.

These spreadsheets often contain some calculations, but very few of them are performing anything more significant than a lookup here and a sum there.

  • They are massive check-lists.
  • They are elongated registers of information.
  • They are extensive task-lists.

One spreadsheet that I look at most weeks is 80 columns wide and 16,000 rows long. That’s 1.3 million pieces of information.

I’ve noticed that some people really love to delve deeply into these massive matrices of information. They are looking for insights to guide their thoughts. I can be like that.

There’s another set of people who go beyond using spreadsheets for analysis and understanding, they love to use the spreadsheet as their check-list/task-list of choice. They start at the top of a long list and work their way down. The driving force seems to be to get to the bottom of the list, ticking things off as they go. The ticking appears to motivate them. This way of working baffles me, not because it’s wrong, but because I don’t understand the motivation. I don’t work like that. Any task-list that has more than 5 or 6 things on it makes my eyes glaze over and results in less action, not more. A long list is just not a motivator, if anything it’s a demotivator.

Other people look at any spreadsheet and their eyes glaze over before they’ve even started. Anything bigger than a quadrant view and they are lost.  They are constantly battling with the previous group trying to work out what it is they are supposed to be doing – “what is today’s focus”. The kings and queens of the check-list are normally in charge of the list. The quadrant lovers sit in progress meetings with the spreadsheet fanatics and roll their eyes as they are subjected to a line-by-line-by-line review of the list.

I don’t think any of these groups are right, or wrong, they are just different. What surprises me is the belief that going through a long list is, in some way, progress. The opposite of that argument is that the people who want it simple are, in their own way, wrong.

Speaking as someone who hates being a slave to a list, I marvel at the people who make a huge amount of progress that way. I need to focus on a much smaller set of things and do those. I don’t think spreadsheet.

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