The Pros & Cons of Strategic Planning in Excel
by Tom Wright, on Sep 11, 2019 9:41:08 PM
Cascade is the leading strategy software in the world. That's awesome! But the reality is that it's by far and away not the most popular tool that people use for strategic planning. That honor falls to good old Microsoft Excel. In this article, we'll explore the pros and cons of using Excel for strategic planning. You can also grab your copy of our strategic plan template in Excel if you want to get your hands dirty.
Strategic planning vs strategic execution
Let's just clear something up quickly - there's a big difference between strategic planning and strategic execution.
Strategic planning is the process of formulating your strategy model and then populating it with your actual plan. Typically a list of Objectives, Projects and KPIs that will hopefully turn your vision into reality.
Strategic execution on the other hand is taking that strategic plan and turning it into something that lives and breaths in the daily operations of your organization. Strategic execution is therefore concerned with implementation of your actions, reporting and tracking of strategy.
I think it's fair to say that no-one (including Microsoft) would really argue that Excel is an effective execution tool. Even online versions of Excel (including Google Sheets) are not intended for multiple people to use simultaneously for tracking progress of strategy or Projects / KPIs. As such, this article is going to be focused on Excel's effectiveness as a strategic planning tool - a realm where it's much more likely to be able to hold its own.
An example of a strategic plan in Excel
To help assess the merits of strategic planning in Excel, let's first look at an example of what a strategic plan might look like in the tool. Our Excel strategic planning template comes with some examples preloaded, so it's perfect if you want to get a sense of what a strategic plan in Excel might look like.
From a structure perspective, most Excel strategic plans will utilize the columns functionality to denote different dimensions of the elements within the plan. For example:
Column A: Focus Area
Column B: Goal Title
Column C: Owner
The number of columns will vary depending on the number of dimensions the user wants to capture. The rows functionality will be used to contain individual goals, each of which will have some or all columns completed for them.
Some strategic plans might also utilize the worksheets (sometimes called tabs) functionality to represent different strategic plans. For example Worksheet A could be the corporate plan, whilst Worksheet B might contain the business unit plan.
In the Excel strategic plan template that we've created, we used the worksheets to help the user build up the different layers of the plan, with the final worksheet being the 'output'. Most of the time when people do strategic planning in Excel, they'll just skip straight to the final worksheet - the output.
The pros of strategic planning in Excel
There are some benefits to using Excel to create a strategic plan. The main benefits are:
- Flexibility - Since you can setup your spreadsheet with any combination of columns that you want, you can design a strategy model that does just about anything you like. This can have major downsides from an execution perspective, but in terms of pure early-stage planning, it's great.
- Speed - There's nothing easier than firing up a spreadsheet and starting to type away to get ideas out of your head and into a document. It's a familiar environment and there are no blockers between your thoughts and them manifesting on the screen in front of you. One of my favorite things about Excel is that you don't have to think about fonts, colors or anything visual.
- Shareability - OK so this one is contentious. On the one hand, Excel is awesome because you can just send off your spreadsheet to pretty much anyone, and know for sure that they'll be able to open it and mostly see it in a way that looks the same as you see it. The flipside is that sharing and collaborating are two very different things. Excel offers nearly zero ways for multiple people to collaborate effectively (online versions have improved this somewhat, but it's still not great).
There are other smaller benefits to using Excel for strategic planning, but the three above are by far and away the most commonly cited.
The cons of strategic planning in Excel
We've touched on the pros, so now let's switch to the cons...
- Lack of Structure - Excel is wonderfully flexible, but that comes at a cost. When you fire up the software, you're faced with an empty grid of boxes, with little guidance on where to actually start. Downloading an example or a template certainly helps, but the template may not be that well suited to your needs and customizing it isn't always easy.
- Un-Collaborative - We mentioned this above - Excel is great for sharing your file with others, but when it comes to actually working with another person on building a strategic plan, it kind of sucks. At worst you might even end up over-writing each other's work.
- Hard to Iterate - Excel doesn't really have any kind of notion of versions and even when it does (Google Sheets has version control which is decent) it doesn't really help, since it relies on your strategic plan maintaining the same structure throughout. Add a single column in a newer version of your plan, and your old version will make little to no sense. That makes it really hard to iterate your strategy, either in the planning phase, or even when you come back later to update it as circumstances change.
- Hard to Visualize - Excel is very simple, but the problem is that once you've gone to the effort of building your strategic plan, what you really want is to be able to click a button or two and visualize it in different ways. Maybe you want to see a gantt chart of how your strategy fits together. Or a color-coded list of goal owners so you can see who's overloaded with stuff to do. In Excel, the best you can hope for is using the built in charts tool, but that rarely kicks out the view you want without some serious thoughts behind the structure of your data.
- Dead - Ok fine, so calling your plan 'dead' is probably a bit dramatic - but the truth is that strategy in Excel is for the most part, pretty boring to look at. Without some seriously ambitious goals, it's unlikely to inspire anyone who's reading it and a lot of your hard work will likely be lost. Not only that, since it's so hard to iterate (see above) it tends to lose relevance very quickly, further contributing to the sense of lifelessness that you get when looking at a strategy created in Excel.
There's one more huge downside to using Excel for creating a strategic plan. It's a bit more complicated than the other 'cons' listed above, so bear with me. I call it:
'The fallacy of creating an un-executable plan' (quite a mouthful I know).
Here at Cascade, we see a lot of strategic plans. Some of the biggest problems that we see with strategic plans is when they're created in a tool that doesn't force you to really think about the alignment between the different layers of your plan. That results in Objectives sometimes lacking corresponding Projects or KPIs - and vice versa. In turn that results in a plan that when people try to actually execute, lacks the necessary robustness to make its way into the everyday operations of the organization.
As with the pros, there are quite a few more potential cons to using Excel for strategic planning - but this covers the major drawbacks that almost everyone runs into.
When should you use Excel for strategic planning?
Ok so given the drawbacks of the tool, is there ever a good time to use Excel for strategic planning? And if so when?
Well, the truth is that Excel is a fantastic tool (probably my favorite overall generic software application - kinda sad but true!). So it absolutely can have a place in strategic planning - you just need to know when to use it and when to upgrade to something a bit better suited to the task (more on that below).
In a nutshell, Excel is best suited at the very start of the strategic planning process. You know those times when you're sitting in the office late at night, and get a sudden rush of enthusiasm to change things up? But everyone else has gone home already, and you just need to get your ideas written down before they vanish into the ether of what might have been, if I'd only written it down! Well this is the time to fire up your trusty Excel application and start pecking away. Here's why:
- You need something fast and immediate to capture your thoughts - Excel is unparallelled when you want to type first, and figure out structure later.
- You're working alone at this stage (be sure to involve others soon though) so the lack of collaborative features isn't going to hurt you too much.
- You need a quick and easy way to share your thoughts with people before going full steam ino the strategic planning process (which you should probably do in a more dedicated tool).
So there you have it - yes, Excel does have a place in the strategic planning process. But it's really early on, and you need to evolve your toolkit pretty quickly if you want to maximize the chances of getting your plan 'execution ready'.
What are the alternatives to strategic planning in Excel?
Having established that Excel can have a place, albeit with a very limited span of life as an effective tool, it's time to look at some of the most common alternatives to using Excel for your strategic plan.
The alternatives range from similarly simple generic tools to Excel, right through to highly specialized products designed specifically for strategic planning. Here are three of the most common alternatives to Excel in strategic planning:
PowerPoint - The Worst Possible Choice
Please don't even consider using PowerPoint for strategic planning. Whilst I earlier criticised Excel for its lack of structure, it still beats PowerPoint when it comes to giving you at least a vague framework for your strategic plan.
The absolute worst strategic plans that I've ever seen were almost all built in PowerPoint. This software emphasizes visuals over structure or logic and without a very disciplined practitioner will result in a muddled strategic planning document that only the author can really understand. PowerPoint is a presentation tool, not a planning tool. You can maybe, possibly get away with using it right at the very end of the strategic planning process to show your strategy to others, but even then there are so many better alternatives.
Jira - The Techie's Choice
We love Jira here at Cascade. Our team uses it hundreds of times per day to help us build our strategy software platform. It has the benefit over Excel of being reasonably modern from a UI perspective, as well as being easier to collaborate with colleagues on. It even has some degree of 'cascading' structure between goals (called Issues in Jira). That makes it an ok starting point compared to Excel for strategic planning. But it lacks any really effective way of letting you visualize your strategy or guidance on how to actually structure it.
Strategic Planning Software - The Smart Choice
Ok fine, you knew I'd say that strategic planning software like Cascade was the best choice for strategic planning right? Yes, it's a shameless plug for what we've built - but seriously, if the thing that we built with the singular purpose of helping people to create and structure strategic plans was not the best tool available for doing so, we'd be messing up pretty hard wouldn't we! :)
Specifically, strategic planning software has the benefit of giving you a predefined (though in Cascade's case, highly flexible) structure for plugging your strategic thoughts into. It also allows you to easily evolve your plan and collaborate with others on it. Finally, it has a range of built in visualizations that let you see how your strategy fits together, where the gaps are - and even gives you advice on how to improve it.
In conclusion, don't ever feel ashamed about using Excel for your strategic planning needs. We've all done it, and in a pinch it's the absolute MacGyver of business tools. But as soon as you get the headspace to get serious about strategic planning, and want to create a plan that's truly execution-ready - it's time to think long and hard about upgrading your toolkit to something a bit better suited to the task at hand.