Spreadsheets, Big Data, and Leadership

Spreadsheets have been around since long before the age of the PC. Hard to believe, I know. But in the late 1970s Harvard (where else?) student Daniel Bricklin came up with the idea of an interactive computer based spreadsheet. Along with the help of Bob Frankson, they developed VisiCalc. (Because you could see it and it did calculations!) And with the development of this remarkable tool (and Lotus, Numbers, and Excel) leadership has never been the same. With apologies to Martha Stewart, this is not “a very good thing.” Such software has provided a remarkable tool for management and leadership, yet far too many of those in leadership roles have mistaken use of this tool for genuine leadership.

In leadership and management the adage, “what gets inspected gets done,” is true. So while the spreadsheet is a useful tool for the inspection of certain actions, it alone, is little more than a dressed up checklist that often creates a culture of frustration in which only results are measured. In the simplest terms spreadsheets are great at measuring sales activity and results. Yet they provide nothing in the way of pricing, production, service quality, or the menagerie of other forms of market intelligence necessary to lead a sales force or what affects its success. Yet in this day of flattening organizational charts the spreadsheet is ubiquitous in its use for such purposes along with use for ensuring procedural compliance, tracking exceptions to policy, measuring employee turnover, and a countless other tracking purposes. In many cases, genuine leadership has been supplanted by little more than a “do better” mentality by managers and would-be leaders doing little to determine the cause of whatever symptom the spreadsheet evidences. In such cases, leadership has forgotten its responsibility to remove obstacles from the path of its team members and thereby open a path to creating improved value for clients, team members, and stakeholders.

In the end, leaders must not mistake the tools of leadership for actually engaging in it. Spreadsheets and big data are quiet and neat. Leadership is noisy and messy. It engages people rather than numbers alone. It addresses causes, not simply symptoms. Data is a tool that can and should be used for the benefit of those affected by it. Yet like the screwdriver used to hammer a nail, if used for the wrong purpose produces limited results, frustration, and on occasion, outbursts of profanity.