Excel Hell


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man walking between tall, dark, spooky trees

There’s no denying it: Excel is a powerful tool. We use it internally for quickly pricing client proposals, and creating financial models. It has it’s limitations, however.  

When used for reporting, these limitations can morph it from an effective tool into a menacing experience. This second reporting horror story explores some of the adverse effects of spreadsheet reports in a tale shocking enough to have you hiding in fear. Check out pt I of our reporting horror stories, The Metric Graveyard,  if you missed it.

Eternal Scrolling

The ultimate enemy of performance reporting is scrolling.  Time and time again we see “dashboards” spread over 100s of rows. Tables of data, charts and complex filters/pivot tables that never end.

Believe us, we almost never see anyone scroll more than a couple of times to check their key indicators. If your reports are forcing executives to consume large amounts of data by scrolling, they will no doubt lose interest and move onto something else, something they can get results from quickly.

How can you avoid eternal Scrolling?

  1. Distribute data effectively. Would breaking out the data from 1 dashboard into 2 make it more readable? Would multiple tabs that reduce scrolling improve data comprehension? Why not test out these tactics?!
  2. Make sure you are only serving the most important data. Forget about vanity metrics and share only information that will allow each individual to achieve their objectives. You may see an inverse correlation between number of indicators per dashboard and decision making authority, and a positive correlation between complexity of KPIs/KSIs and decision making authority.

Infinite Numbers

Excel is best used to manipulate and manage data.  However, some companies we meet are providing infinite numbers and forgetting about the needs of their stakeholders.  Tables are certainly valuable for a number of different applications, and when organized well and showing only relevant columns can provide great insights. They are not always the best way to share data, however.

In one extreme case, a senior executive was manually looking for insights in the same data set used by analysts. The executive had to scroll through columns of infinite rows looking for discrepancies in the raw numbers. Years of historical campaign data was listed and manually trying to find anomalies in this was even less successful than finding a needle in a haystack.   

How can you escape of these infinite numbers?

By visualizing your data. Visualizing it can often give you a quicker, if less granular, idea of performance. Data visualizations can help you quickly isolate key patterns and focus on what matters. By adding values to them, or interactive elements, you can also avoid the inaccuracy in interpretation that is sometimes associated with them.

Perpetual Reports

One of the most intense examples of an Excel horror show we’ve ever seen is the delivery of an unconscionable amount of reports. Numerous companies, while understanding the value of automation and time saving in the creation of reports, have taken reporting down a dark road with no happy ending.

In some cases, senior management has requested regular, or even near-real time updates, on ad impressions, content, social media and other factors. In order to cater to these requests, analysts have found themselves creating 20 or more reports in Excel and emailing them out.

Of course analysts get frustrated with this workload. Apart from creating a huge amount of overwhelming manual data entry work (which of course is not very stimulating), analytics teams soon lose motivation as they find out that no one is even reading these reports… worse, they are simply ignoring them!

Those executives don’t have the time, or willpower, to glean insights from huge amounts of data. What they really want is visibility on data, insight from those in the trenches who know the details of what’s going on, and context so that they can really understand performance.

So how can you improve the value of your reports while reducing their number?

Aside from carefully selecting what data is shown, and creating unique computed metrics that speak to the goals of the organization, it’s crucial to add context to your reports. Storytelling will bring your data to life and allow you to improve the understanding of senior management while simultaneously reducing the manual work of analysts. They can instead use this time to interpret the behaviour of key metrics, develop ideas to improve results and run tests to find out which hold the greatest merit.


Have you ever found yourself in Excel Hell? How have you escaped?

Keep one eye open for the next post in our Reporting Horror Stories series!

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Nathan Easom

Director of Sales for Sweetspot. Works with customers to streamline their reporting, saving companies hours of valuable time and helping them react quicker to insights. Languages graduate from the University of Nottingham, UK. A banjo-picking, ice hockey playing Englishman in New York.

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