5 Reasons Project Managers Need To Know Excel

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Excel for project managers

I’m not going to give some long-winded introduction on Excel, we are all professionals, we all open up Excel files and we get its importance in an organisation. Yet, the PM world still scoffs at it, so I’m going to rebut that notion with a dose of practicality.

Excel’s brilliance first is its flexibility. I’ve often referred to it as an analytical sketchpad, almost like a notepad with data capabilities. Excel’s second brilliance is ubiquity – that is no matter where you end up working, you can bet your last bit of budget that Excel will be available and not only that but your stakeholders can open it up, understand it and work with it!

In a world of growing toolsets, most of which aren’t available from company to company, the kind of accessibility that Excel offers makes it a great tool in the arsenal of any project manager and it’s considered one of the essential small business tools.

Sure, you have purpose-built alternatives but Excel is a one stop shop that can achieve so much without much hassle. Certainly, for small projects (<£1m), Excel can allow a PM to get up and running and start sketching out some of the key particulars to mobilise and manage a project.

Rather than be a slave to perfection and tools, Excel encourages the kind of pragmatism that’s expected of any PM. So, to that end, in this post, I’m going to go through some of the reasons a PM will want to leverage Excel.

  1. Maintain the Project Plan

Alternative: Microsoft Project

Now, ideally you want some kind of Gantt chart and this is as easy as writing a list of to do’s with corresponding baseline start/end dates. With Excel you can get visual and start colouring cells or use a bar chart to construct a Gantt chart, there are options here. Of course, Excel won’t re-baseline easily without some rework or clever use of formulas, Microsoft Project wins here especially in the way it can reposition predecessor and successor tasks. However, Excel still does a solid job of allowing you to track your road to delivery.

  1. Create a RAID Log

Alternative: PPM tools like Clarity, Primavera, etc

Ahhh, the trusty Risks, Assumptions, Issues and Dependency log that is the cornerstone of every good PM’s management tools. Break open an Excel file, create four tabs and you are good to go. What I love about an Excel RAID is that anyone can open it up, it’s easily distributed, you can pre-filter it (i.e. for open items) and it can drive a weekly RAID meeting.

  1. Track Financials & Resources

Alternative: Finance system, an enterprise system like Oracle, Hyperion, etc

Here’s one of the most obvious one’s since the ‘spreadsheet’ was originally intended to replace the accountant’s need for number crunching and what Excel seems to be most synonymous with. Excel really just shines here ta keeping on top of all the costs of a project. So, build your forecast, track your actuals and understand variances as a management tool.

  1. Track Requirements

Alternative: Requirement/Test tool, possibly Jira

Here’s one that I’ve seen many PM’s not always do but it really helps to keep on top of those troublesome scope and quality conversations. Agreeing the requirements early on and using that as a list to ward off scope creep, incongruent testing and of course, loathsome chancers (‘I’m sure you said the new functionality would also help my dog win Crufts!’)

  1. Carry out ad hoc Data Analysis

Alternative: None!

Now, this is an open ended one but PM’s with some Excel know-how (think VLOOKUP’s, Pivot Tables, Filters and some more advanced formulas) often can quickly do some analysis. This might be verifying some claims around data, it might be costing out two possible solution options to help Execs make a delivery choice, it could be a reforecasting exercise or so many other possible tasks.

Compelled to work with Excel on your next project? Maybe you’re still sceptical and happy with your existing tools, but if you’re open and want to get up and running on your next project quickly, give it a go.

Sohail Anwar is a PMO/PM who happens to teach best practice Excel to PMs, PMOs, Analysts and pretty much any professionals who work with Excel, you can learn more over at Earn And Excel

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