Why Good Spreadsheets Make Bad Strategies

Two great things about extensive traveling are 1) Harvard Business Review, and 2) The Economist. I love reading both cover to cover, taking notes, circling great quotes, and applying the ideas within my blog or to my current team/business. On my recent trip to the east coast, I picked up the April 2010 edition of HBR and found the feedback from several readers within the Interaction section (letters to the editor) to have great insight into a topic that has vexed me for, oh, a couple years now regarding the practice of management-by-spreadsheet at my last company:

“We have a deep-seated desire to quantify the world around us so that we can understand it and control it. But the world isn’t behaving. We must consider the possibility that if we can’t measure something, it might be the very most important aspect of the problem.” (Roger Martin)

“The notion that ‘if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t count’ is flatly false. You can manage through fear and intimidation, role modeling, love, random eccentricities, or mantras. None of those require measurement. We’re so in love with quantitative ideology that we’ve quite forgotten what it was supposed to measure in the first place.” (Charles Green)

It is compellingly seductive to try to predict the future as though it were a quantifiable extrapolation of the past. Doing otherwise lays us open to critique and ridicule. People are far more likely to subscribe to our view of the future (next quarter’s sales) if we can quantify what we are saying. Hence the need for more data and information. But this can be an addictive toxin: More information merely creates the demand for more information.” (Les Gregory)

I’m on the record with my previous team as having complained on numerous occasions that spreadsheets were the ouija board of the management class, with many peers relying on creative application of data to solve all of their woes, and for this data to make the decisions they were unwilling or unable to make on their own.

Maybe someone should analyze the data on that, and track some short-term KPIs. Yeah, that’d do the trick.

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Servers and Services MVP, the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and CMO of revealit.io, a blockchain-based video technology company.