Excel Nightmares, Part II: Version Control

Not all Excel nightmares are enormous and costly—some are tiny, nagging frustrations that are enough to haunt you day in and day out.

Ted, Founder and Managing Partner at ClearPoint, has over 25 years of experience working with organizations to improve their performance management and strategy execution processes.

There have been a plethora of widely-publicized, extremely-costly mistakes companies have made while using Excel. I wrote about some of these—including the famed JPMorgan, six billion-dollar spreadsheet error—in Excel Nightmares, Part I.  The mistakes listed there damaged both the reputation and checkbooks of the companies who made them.

But what about those small Excel errors that companies deal with on a daily basis? Not all nightmares come in the form of huge, debilitating mistakes. Some are much like a mosquito that won’t quit biting—a constant, nagging annoyance. If you’ve used Excel for an extended period of time—particularly for financial reporting or another formula-heavy purpose—you’re probably nodding fervently.

Version control is one of these issues. In its simplest form, version control is the task of keeping your document versions well-organized and consistent. Organization is a nightmare in and of itself for many folks, but when you don’t have help from the software that you use, it makes it even more of an issue. Mistakes due to version control aren’t always debilitating, like some other Excel errors, but they are aggravatingly common.

Take this example:

“I built up quite a bit of Excel experience in my days as a consultant and VP of strategy in a manufacturing company. When I joined the company, they were running their entire production schedule from a single spreadsheet, which was stored on an open-permission file server. One hundred and forty employees had access to the file on any given day, and it was very common to have someone make unauthorized edits to the production schedule. This meant we would have no idea when a product needed to be built and shipped.” Chintan Sutaria, Founder of VisionPDM

I like to refer to this process as “Round-Robin Mayhem.” In essence, your report is passed around from one person to the next, and when you finally get it back, it’s a mess! Here’s another pertinent example:

“I asked my client for their scorecard, and they sent me three Excel documents, one managed by their leadership team, one by the measures team, and one by the project management office.  None of the spreadsheets had the same objectives or measures in them.  No wonder the organization was struggling to execute their strategy.  They were all using different versions of the scorecard that had been changed over the course of the year.” Bernie Akporiaye, Principal, Rapid Performance LLC

I’m sure you can see how these types of Excel nightmares can be headache-inducing. Let’s take a look at a few other common version control spreadsheet issues.

Common Excel “Version Control” Nightmares

I’ve seen a whole lot of version control issues in my 20+ years in strategy management and consulting. Without calling out any specifics, I’ve summarized a few of the situations I’ve seen regularly below. You may notice that you’ve been in a similar situation at some point.

  1. The Last-Minute Dash: Your quarterly review meeting is in two hours and you have your presentation all put together. All of a sudden your email inbox is overflowing with changes to one version of the Excel document from 13 of your co-workers. So much for being prepared with the correct numbers on time!
  1. Mysteriously Vanishing Numbers: You’re helping put together a document for upper management, which you’re collaborating on with several others. When you return to the document to add the finishing touches, half of your data—and your hours of hard work—has been erased. And you’ve no idea how to figure out where it went, or who was responsible.
  1. Egg On Your Face: You are sharing your organization’s quarterly financials during a strategy meeting, and two of your co-workers call you out for not having the correct numbers. You could have sworn that you had the right data. But as it turns out, two people had updated the document without you knowing.
  1. Finding The Needle In Someone Else’s Haystack: You have created a file to be sent out and implemented throughout the organization. A while after you’ve sent it, you find out that the file has been changed somewhere down the line. Even though the change they made was small, it has severely corrupted the sophisticated formula you put into place, causing you to work longer hours than expected.
  1. Party Line: There’s an important document making the rounds in the financial department for edits, but somehow, it ends up in the marketing department. You find out that changes are being made that should’ve only been handled by the financial department, so the document has to go back to square one. Sadly, time and effort have both been wasted.

What Are The Alternatives To Excel?

If you are dead set on using a spreadsheet application, be sure to compare Google Sheets and Excel to determine which is a better fit for you.

If you’d rather avoid the issues that Excel seems to bring to the table, there are plenty of alternatives. QlikView and Tableau are popular dashboard and visualization options, and Crystal Reports is popular for ad hoc reporting. Zoho is another great option. And I’m quite fond of ClearPoint (but I might be a little biased). I’ve also compiled a list of the best reporting software options in this article, so be sure to review before making your decision.

Don’t get me wrong—I think Excel is a great tool… just not for financial reporting. These other options can help you stop a potential nagging nightmare before it even begins.


Excel Nightmares, Part II: Version Control