Life Hacks, Productivity

Spreadsheets are not scary


What was the last document you created? I’m guessing it was either an email, a Word document, or a Google Doc. Perhaps it was a Slack message but since when you use Slack you create several hundred messages a month (or day), so let’s not count that. Why wasn’t it a spreadsheet (Excel or Google Sheets)?

The most likely reason you didn’t create a spreadsheet is that you wanted the freedom of an open page (hint: View > gridlines turns them off in Google Sheets). Maybe you wanted to insert pictures (hint: use the Image function or insert > image). Or maybe you just like the formatting that seems to happen almost automatically in Cloud-based apps these days. But really, why didn’t you start with a spreadsheet?

Spreadsheets are structured. True, they end up looking that way when they are done. Why not use a tab in your spreadsheet to test an idea (growth in a metric over time, adjusted by factors that change) and produce a sensitivity table to help illustrate a business challenge you are facing. When you are thinking about taking a metric from x to y by when (improve yield by 40% in 30 days) it’s important to show the impact of meeting or missing your expectations.

A suggestion: start with a written statement of what you are trying to solve, e.g. “produce a month over month forecast for the sales team based on a certain number of sales per month and an average sale of $x.” Using the problem statement will frame how you set up your data – you need to have available data series for the problem that match your problem – and start you on the way to presenting the “dashboard” version of your solution. Keep it simple to start by labeling cells that affect others as assumptions, like “sales increase per month.”

Spreadsheets are structured like modular pieces to assemble into a larger whole. Start with the smallest item in your model or argument and test it, then use either a Named Range or a consistently placed cell (e.g. all of your calculations are in a single tab in the same column) to organize where you will find the results. Spreadsheets are more flexible than you think.

Those formulas are hard to copy from one tab to another. Anyone who has ever worked on a spreadsheet has had the experience of copying or changing the data and seeing the dreaded #N/A or #VALUE or #REF show up in place of the data or calculation that they wanted. (And if you have no idea what I am talking about, open a spreadsheet tab in, enter a formula e.g.  =A1+A2 and then break the formula by putting in nonsense characters).

To test your ability to copy data from one tab to another, create a new tab, remove the gridlines for that tab, and title it “Dashboard”. If you can pull the data from the other tab (hint: just use a simple reference, e.g. “=YourOtherSheet!A2” to pull data from a tab called “YourOtherSheet” in cell A2) you can apply things like formatting and font choice to make your dashboard look like a document, not just a spreadsheet.

This method of data construction and display just plain feels weird. Building data-driven dashboards is a method to insert data conversations in your documents. The data needs to first exist in the format (or in a format that’s convertible to the format you need) and then you need to think about how to combine it. And you need to think of the visual display at the same time to make this a useful technique.

Spreadsheets aren’t scary if you think of the presentation layer as a sketch. You might even draw what you want to see on a Post-It note or find a dashboard that you like on the web and take a screen shot as a starting point. Then, consider what kind of data goes into the boxes and graphs to understand what you need to store in the data layer. Still confused, or want to learn more? Ben Collins is my go-to resource to explain Google Sheets to anyone. The best way to learn spreadsheets, however, is to start one.




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