spreadsheetsIt’s easy to see spreadsheets as a rampaging beast in your office.

You start off just trying to get better visibility into your work for your and management’s sanity. Your spreadsheet needs constant maintenance, but you go along with it for the benefits it will surely bring. Week after week, your spreadsheet is getting bigger and more demanding. Before long, your whole team is spending as much as a fourth of their time adding status updates to the spreadsheet—and that’s in addition to the time logged by the full-time admin you’ve hired to keep your spreadsheet tidy and useful. And then, most painfully of all, after all that upkeep, the data in your spreadsheet is still outdated and 70% of your creatives say they aren’t getting enough creative time.

Yes, your project spreadsheet has become a fire-breathing dragon with a voracious appetite for your team’s time. And it needs to die.

So, like any hero, you set off on a quest to vanquish the spreadsheet dragon once and for all. But doing so will require more than bravado. You’ll need to understand from whence your dragon draws its strength and then the proper moves for putting it out of its misery. To aid you in your quest, the following three steps are sure to slay the spreadsheet dragon and give your creative team back their visibility and time:

1. Automate your data-gathering

The vast majority of the time team members spend in spreadsheets is typically on manual data entry, typing in status updates and notes the good old-fashioned way. There are two big problems with this: 1) it takes so long that the information is outdated by the time you hit ‘save’ and 2) there’s no reason the same work couldn’t be done by a robot or code. This amounts to a sad waste of your supremely gifted creatives’ time.

When it comes to gathering data, the closer to real time you can get, the better. Of course, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a human admin who can maintain and update spreadsheets in real time, so your best bet becomes an automated system of collecting your work data.

For example, when a copywriter finishes a task, she simply clicks a ‘complete’ button and that change in task status instantly populates across your team and notifies your stakeholders. Instead of spending time digging up the team spreadsheet and manually entering that information, your copywriter is off to her next task. The spreadsheet dragon is dealt a serious blow.

2. Establish one stop for project info

In too many creative teams, gaining a comprehensive view of a project’s history requires a virtual hero’s quest to track down emails, sticky notes, instant messages, Word docs, and, yes, spreadsheets. Further exacerbating this problem is the tendency of individual team members to stick to their own preferred tools and ways of recording project data. This problem only gets worse as no one checks these spreadsheets for accuracy—72% of workers say this is exactly the case.

If having disparate sources of information mucks up your project data, then bringing your project information into one location does just the opposite. The time wasted on digging through everyone’s pet tools to grab data? Over. Inconsistent standards of measuring key metrics? Done. Having all project communication happening in one place makes it much easier to guarantee that your metrics are consistent and trustworthy. In addition, it makes it much easier to build in some automation (see number one). These improvements in visibility and communication have been shown to create a 17% increase in projects completed within budget.

3. Keep reports simple

Spreadsheets aren’t immune to the effects of feature creep. Even the most seasoned creative managers can fall for the temptation to invent new metrics and get more granular than they need to. Too often, this causes your spreadsheet dragon to get dangerously bloated, requiring additional hours of data-gathering and number-crunching for results that will be only marginally valuable to your team and stakeholders. The end result is usually a reporting spreadsheet that just plain overwhelms stakeholders and demands more of your team’s already scarce time.

Although stats like “words typed per copywriter per minute” could be important, structuring your data-gathering and reports around those metrics that matter most to managers and stakeholders will keep you focused on delivering what matters most. If you do find yourself obsessing over providing more and more metrics, take a step back and narrow down your reports to the three to five metrics that are most important to your team and management. This return to simplicity will put a stop to your spreadsheet dragon’s bloat.

Spreadsheets Tamed

When followed properly, these three steps can deliver a triple-combo deathblow to a full-grown spreadsheet dragon. In many cases, they will eliminate the need for spreadsheets altogether. In all cases, the time that your team saves on spreadsheet maintenance will create a direct increase in time for creative work and strategic planning.