To Spreadsheet Hell and Back

As a former controller, chief accountant and auditor, I’ve had my share of spreadsheets. I figuratively and literally felt the heat of crashing files, endless calculations, plugs and shameful errors. But beyond the drama which repeated itself at every closing, planning or reporting cycle, I could feel a much more embarrassing situation.

First, I was spending more time crunching numbers and cosmeticizing my documents than adding value to the business. Through my office window, I could see workers, drivers, sales persons “running” the company while I was just “non-stop copy-pasting” data to built reports, most of which would never be read by anyone. Which added-value was I bringing during these endless hours of data fidgeting?

Second, I realized that none of my spreadsheets were sustainable and that very few would survive my changes of roles. Indeed, what do we all do when we inherit a spreadsheet? We, of course, know better and we rebuild it to our liking, convinced that this time, it would “really” be automated and streamlined. In the end, we are just paid to rebuild another sheet which life span will be limited to our stay at that position. It felt like a continuous house of cards building where no one and certainly not the organization was.

Last, and this is what probably frustrated me the most, I did not respect the data that I received for analysis and reporting. Storing data in a spreadsheet is similar to leading a train to a dead end. Once I would copy, process and tweak the data in my documents, it would lose all fluidity. While we believe we are doing a favor to our peers by sharing massively cosmeticize information, we prevent our recipients to take one new analysis on their own. As data loses its tabular format and becomes polluted with subtotals, empty rows/lines, and other “SumIfs,” it becomes unworkable for the next persons in the chain. It forces them to understand the meanders of our logic, to avoid formulae pitfalls and to go through another round of customization. How often have we shared nicely presented “group FX rates” or “company tables” that required ad hoc manual processing for integration in systems?

Call it fate, karma and maybe innate curiosity and open-mindedness to the world around: after two years of nonstop spreadsheet hell, I came across professionals eager not to sell me software or endless consulting gigs but to work with me and train me to master my analytic processes with efficiency and accuracy.

With a data master sitting with me, I learned the fundamentals of data integration, preparation, and organization. I realized that data was like any other material. You would most of the time collect it raw and it would be up to you to prepare it and then assemble it into something useful. The base techniques around this process were accessible and understandable by not only myself but also my team, ranging from admin to director levels. By applying a standard discipline to every single reporting and analytics process, we started to gain not only tremendous time by reducing up to 10 fold our workload, but we also build a sustainable and standard discipline.

With a technology expert, I discovered how simple the system stack could be. By setting aside the buzzwords and the techie jargon, I could put clear names and functions on all software or solution pieces. Instead of considering analytics solutions as one big box with some magic in the middle, I could cut through the marketing fog and understand the inner workings of each component for better usage and adjustments to my needs. Once again, there was no rocket science: just plain logic that anyone on my team (and today in my classes) understands.

Then came management mentoring. The second I started to impact more than my little world of spreadsheets, I realized that not necessarily everyone was either understanding, agreeing and supporting my initiatives. Let’s be realistic: reducing process time, introducing new technology solutions and radically transforming data management doesn’t land naturally in organizations who have run the same Excel show for years.  I started to hit walls at best, and fierce counter strike at worse. I was not equipped to understand and manage change. I needed techniques to become better at it. I needed new optics to decode people reactions and address them pragmatically and yet with empathy. I was lucky to receive training in these aspects. I met a coach that didn’t come with overused “magic” recipes but who showed me how listening, empathy, respect, confidence in people backed with the domain expertise can go a long way. I could immediately tie it to my personal data project experience.

Finally, I realized that all this assembly of data, technology, and people would fizzle to nothing without a balanced, sustainable and lean process. From the youngest age, I was exposed to the virtues of lean management, total quality, just-in-time and other supply chain best practices. I realized how much improvement could be brought to processes with well-thought adjustments. Once again, at the core of it was common sense, passion for efficiency and even as a teenager I could sense if not understand these notions.

Today, I have chosen to share the expertise I was once given and to teach these four pillars that have made data such a fantastic journey for me. Stretching my expertise beyond my comfort zone to management, high technology, data management and people leadership has been one of the best things of my career. I became much more balanced in my approaches, much more aware of the inherent constraints and opportunities of any initiatives. It hasn’t always been a pleasure cruise as I had to face many nay-sayers, tech obsessed, Excel addicts and other change-opposed individuals but the magic feeling of seeing individuals and teams bloom with efficiency and empowerment has always been the greatest reward.

Join the Data Wise professional: become the architects, the conductors, and the magicians of your career evolution and your team development. Whether you are in Sales, Marketing, HR, Finance, Operations or Legal, data is becoming a critical asset. Mastering its life cycle will not only make you a better professional, but it will also make you a better individual.

I want to personally thank Philippe, Salah, Frédéric, and Roger (in order of appearance) without who, I would have never gotten my passion for efficient, agile and sustainable data analytics.