Dear Analyst #95: Nobody ever got fired for choosing Google Sheets

The motivation for this post/episode is a selfish one (scroll to the very bottom or skip to the end of the podcast to see why). As I thought about the framing of this post during my normal “thinking” moments (commuting, on the toilet, during useless meetings), I realized I’m going to take a different approach to why people should and shouldn’t use Google Sheets. I’m not going to list all the features and do a pros/cons list. This episode is more about how software (in this case Google Sheets) makes you feel. Yup, that’s right. The gooey emotions you feel from watching a rom com can also be applied to the software you use at work. This could be a stretch, but come along for the ride and let’s see where the rabbit hole takes us.

Reliability over innovation

The title of this post is a rip off of the old adage “Nobody gets fired for buying an IBM.” In the early to mid-20th century, IBM was selling their computers and mainframes to the government and the enterprise. They were seen as innovators and consequently grew to one of the largest corporations during that time. Their brand was associated with providing excellent customer service and of course top of the line machines.

Source: Science Photo Library

Over time, the innovation slowed at IBM. Nevertheless, companies continued buying from IBM. The brand and product was seen as a reliable choice over startups and new entrants. In a nutshell, you could de-risk the decision by going with a vendor that everyone else knew and trusted.

Fast forward to the present, what are the IBMs of our generation? Microsoft Office? The Google Suite? Do we reach for Google Sheets because we know everyone else on our team uses it or because it’s actually the best tool to get the job done? I think it’s mix of both.

Just good enough to get the job done

Maybe your company doesn’t have an Office 365 subscription and you need a little bit more of those collaborative and sharing features. So you reach for Google Sheets. It mimics enough of Excel’s features such that you’re comfortable with putting important company data in it. Like Excel, it’s the most utilitarian tool and all you care about is that the formulas work and that Google Sheets doesn’t go down. You don’t want to feel anything from using Google Sheets. It’s just good enough to be your CRM or event planner.

What it’s actually great for is modeling and financial analysis to help you make a decision. So it’s a decision-making tool. But since so much of our work is about making non-financial decisions, we use Google Sheets for everything because it’s just good enough. We’re ok with it not having the bells and whistles of other tools.

That’s the rub. Good enough. It doesn’t excite us like getting a match on Tinder does. It doesn’t tickle our senses like a sizzling steak does when it comes out of the kitchen. Should we feel ok with “settling” with something we have to use every day? More data is being generated from our products and services and is the only way to make sense of it all is to put it into Google Sheets?

For most people, settling with Google Sheets is absolutely fine. You don’t want your spreadsheet to incite any emotions because it’s there to do one job and one job only. Keep your data organized and help you make decisions. Anything more or less is a waste of your time.

The allure of free

No matter what function you work in, chances are you have to export your data from Salesforce, Jira, or some other internal tool into a Google Sheet. Your data is “trapped” in these SaaS tools and it’s difficult to make decisions about what bugs to work on or which email campaign to send when you don’t have the right stats in front of you.

Everyone has a Google account and Google Docs and Google Sheets are free. Why bother using anything besides Google Sheets? It’s has most of Excel’s features, it’s free, and like I said above it’s good enough.

For small businesses and startups, free and “good enough” are sufficient qualities. When I had my own startup I also used Google Sheets and Google Docs to get shit done.

But for the people out there working at big corporations who have a budget to spend on software, Google Sheets is still the default because of its ease of use. More importantly, it doesn’t have to go through the IT or procurement ringer because it’s free. You won’t ever get fired for picking up free software right?

I really like this megathread in the /r/projectmanagement subreddit where the mod basically rails on spreadsheets. You can tell he’s seen multiple big companies try to use spreadsheets for project management and there’s always a sad ending to the story:

You just work here and want to keep your job

The last place you expect to use your creative muscles is in that shared Google Sheet everyone uses to update OKRs or leave notes about inventory. Maybe put in a little extra work to format the Google Sheet or include data validation features so that people don’t accidentally add incorrect data. The goal here is to maintain the status quo and not introduce new processes or tools that would require everyone to learn something new. We have important jobs to do and features to ship. What’s the point of making the spreadsheet better (or picking a new tool) when it’s merely supporting the real things you care about?

At the end of the day, you aren’t going to risk your job on a better CRM tool or project management tracker. Even though the new and shiny software will actually solve some of your business workflow problems, the potential damage to your reputation and ego outweigh the blandness of a free Google Sheet.

That’s the problem innit? We all just work somewhere. If you’re not just at XYZ company for a higher salary and actually feel a sense of ownership with your work, you would feel less risk-averse. You would feel like making the lives of your colleagues better. And that comes down to the experience each of your teammates feel when they launch Slack, Teams, or Outlook. Is it too farfetched to say that using our “work” applications should feel like using our “personal” applications (minus the addictiveness)? We are in these applications all day anyway, why not have a user experience that delights us and have us actually enjoy updating our project statuses or aggregating a list of marketing assets?

This is starting to spiral into a soliloquy about psychological safety in the workplace and finding your purpose. We are still just talking about Google Sheets here. But the Google Sheet (like IBM) could be a symbol of the risk-aversion at your company.

The need to share

Or as the SaaS venture capital world calls it: “multiplayer mode.” The biggest value proposition for Google Sheets when it first came out in 2006 was the ability to share your spreadsheet and have your teammates collaborate with you. Take a look at the SaaS applications or software you use today and you’ll see how they are becoming more multiplayer in nature.

I think this real-time nature of Google Sheets spurred teams to adopt the lean startup model to their spreadsheets. Instead of working independently on your spreadsheet for days and weeks on end and shipping your final “product” to your team, you shared your Google Sheet internally with a giant “WIP” somewhere on the Google Sheet. You share the Google Sheet, get feedback, iterate, and the cycle continues. This results in a better output and makes your teammates feel more vested in the final model or analyses.

It’s all fun and games until the Google Sheet breaks

All parties win until the Google Sheet is only understood by a few people or maybe the one analyst who set up the whole Google Sheet. If you go back to bullet #4 in the screenshot I shared above from the /r/projectmanagement subreddit, the person who understands the formulas and structure of that Google Sheet becomes the single point of failure for that entire system.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been shown a Google Sheet or Google Apps Script and the person showing me it says: “Mary was our analyst who created this spreadsheet, but she just left last week.” When Mary is on the team and she’s actively managing the Google Sheet, everything is great! The team can rely on Mary. The minute she jumps ship, panic, confusion, and even resentment may creep in because you don’t know enough about the construction of the Google Sheet to fix it.

This is why SaaS applications and software that are meant to do project management, inventory management, and customer relationship management is a $144B market!

In episode #46, I walk through a project management template I created in Google Sheets. The beauty of this Google Sheet template is that it can handle task dependencies and output a hacky gantt chart/timeline. This episode/blog post is one of my top performing blog posts. It’s scary to think that teams may be using this template to manage real projects. There might be a few individuals on your team that understand how these formulas work and how to edit the template, but the rest of the team are just “consumers” of the template.

Screenshot of the project management template from episode #46

I can see the appeal of this template for a team that wants to get started with a project tool quickly. The small barrier to resistance from your teammates (it’s free) and likelihood that someone on your team understands how it works is enough for you to want to get started. But the minute a customization or additional features are needed, you are relying on someone who loves doing stuff in Google Sheets (there are a lot of them out there!) to pick up the tab.

A half-hearted way of getting work done

Is there more to your SaaS tools and workplace software than just getting your work done? Can it make you feel something? Can it inspire you to be more creative? I think we are at a moment in time where SaaS applications are so commodified that these features that tug on your emotions are the only way to differentiate.

But it’s an uphill battle. The allure of the risk-averse and free Google Sheet will keep you going back to what you feel comfortable with, or what your team or company feels comfortable using. Can you take a risk with trying that new tool you heard about without feeling like a complete loser if your team ultimately doesn’t use it?

It’s such a half-hearted way to work. You spend most of your day in tool that you know everyone hates to a certain degree. But it’s good enough, free enough, and enough to make you fit in. If you decide not to settle and take the risk, perhaps you and your team will change for the better.

How to better use Google Sheets for your team

I know that most of you who listen to this episode or read this post will think I’m crazy. We’re just talking about Google Sheets here. You won’t be risking your career on new tools or platforms and will continue using Google Sheets for all the aforementioned reasons.

Knowing that, I recently created two online classes to learn Google Sheets (specifically for a team setting). I mentioned this in the very first sentence of this episode/post. After everything that I’ve said, I have a vested interest in you using Google Sheets and wanting to learn more tips and tricks on how to use it for your team. I launched both of these classes on Skillshare, and you can learn more about them by clicking these links. The first one is a beginner class and the second one is an advanced class:

Other Podcasts & Blog Posts

In the 2nd half of the episode, I talk about some episodes and blogs from other people I found interesting: