Top Ten Microsoft Excel Mistakes

Based upon my experience in teaching Microsoft Excel to several thousand adult learners, here are the top ten Microsoft Excel mistakes that I have seen.  They are in exact order that they occurred to me.

My views on the major Excel mistakes may surprise you.

Inheriting Someone’s Excel spreadsheet Without a Review

I call this the spreadsheet “hot potato” game (hot potato is a game played in the U.S. by children).

When someone is promoted, transferred, fired, or moves on to a different company, someone inherits that person’s spreadsheet.  This normally happens in a space of minutes.

Your manager will tell you to speak to the co-worker who is leaving.  You’re supposed to “take over” his/her spreadsheets.  The person who is leaving will email the spreadsheets he uses or just tell you they are located on a certain folder on the network.

If you’re smart you’ll ask him or her to explain the spreadsheet.  90% of the time they’ll say they don’t have time (They are leaving and they really don’t care.)

If someone who is leaving tries to give you an Excel spreadsheet and they don’t have time to discuss it with you, tell your manager.  Inform your manager that you are uncomfortable taking responsibility for a spreadsheet that has not been explained.

Trusting Numbers People Give You for your Spreadsheet

People collect numbers from different sources and often put them into a spreadsheet doing quality control on those numbers.

The computer guy gave you numbers for your spreadsheet from the mainframe computer?  If you’re serious about accuracy you’ll ask the computer guy what kind of quality control is performed on those numbers.  If you’re too embarassed to ask that question, perhaps you should transfer to a department that just uses harmless programs like Microsoft Word or Microsoft PowerPoint.

A spreadsheet with incorrect numbers you accepted from another source can kill your career.  Few people are fired for spelling errors in MS Word or boring MS PowerPoint presentations.

People are fired or let go for embarassing mistakes on spreadsheets.

Not Understanding MDAS – My Dear Aunt Sally

If you don’t know what MDAS means, you need to take my Excel quiz.

Numbers Entered instead of Formulas are a Classic Excel Mistake

I was once preparing to teach an Excel budgeting class to departments at a prestigious Chicago university.  My client asked me to emphasize the importance of “using formulas not numbers”.

This seemed a bit odd.  Why would people enter a number among rows of formulas.  Totally incorrect technique.

The client looked at me and just said.  “Sometimes they just lie a bit.  They use a number when the formula works against them.”

Faking Your Excel Skills is a Deadly Mistake

As I said at the beginning of this blog post, I’m writing down these top ten mistakes as I think of them based on teaching several thousand Excel adult learners.

People lie about their Excel skills all the time.  They lie about their Excel skills to get a job.  They lie about their Excel skills to get a promotion.  And they lie about their Excel skills so they won’t get fired.

Perhaps you don’t think you are faking your Microsoft Excel skills.  But if you tell your manager you know how to build a pivot table when you don’t, you’re in for a bad surprise.  They’re hard.

If you tell your manager you’ve worked on departmental budgets before when you haven’t, expect trouble.

If you acquired a job using Excel and you lied a little bit about your skill level, you need to get serious about learning Excel, quickly.

Thinking Excel is a Good Database is a Bad Mistake

Microsoft Excel is a good data bucket.  You can sort several different ways and even become talented making =IF statements that help you extract useful information from data.

But Excel is not a very good database.  Why not?

  1. Poor reporting.  Microsoft Access can create wonderful queries on huge amounts of data (give me all the patients taking the XYZ drug for high blood pressure if they are over the age of 65).  And with Access, you can make beautiful reports for your data.  Try doing that with Excel.  You can’t.
  2. The One to Many Relationship.  This is hard to explain.  Excel does one to one relationships.  Access can do one to many relationships.  A classic problem would be keeping track of patients and their multiple visits to their doctor.  With Access, you can set up a database that does that superbly and gives you good reports on the data.  Excel would have a hard time keeping track of patients with multiple visits and then allowing you to good reports from that data.

Excel is great for simple databases with one to one relationships.  A list of all your customers, a list of all your patients, a list of your fantasy football team.  If you need excellent reports or one to many relationship tracking, Excel will let you down.

Trying to Learn MS Excel as if its MS PowerPoint is a Mistake

The first Microsoft software you ever learned was probably Microsoft Word.  At a simple level for memos and two page reports, Microsoft Word is easy.  You had no trouble learning it.

Perhaps you learned PowerPoint.  That was relatively easy.  Just cool menu choices for doing cool drawing techniques.  Even people without artistic skills like me can learn PowerPoint and look decent.

Thinking Excel is like learning Word or PowerPoint.

Learning Excel is not like learning MS Word or MS PowerPoint.

I remember a bring young lady I took MS Word and MS PowerPoint classes from me.  She even took my basic Excel courses.  She did splendidly.

One day as she sat in the third row by the door (yes, I still remember where people sat in class) she was taking a Magic Excel class from me where my focus was using formulas.  I asked her a simple Excel formula question that she would have known if she was decent with math in high school.

She froze in the classroom and could not speak.

After watching this for 5 very long seconds I saved her.  I cracked a joke and said, “Of course you know the answer so I’ll explain for the rest of the class.”  I’ll never ask an adult student a formula question without their volunteering.

She was good at MS Word, MS Powerpoint.  She was good at learning software interfaces.  She was horrible at math.  Microsoft Excel is the toughest Microsoft software you’ll probably ever learn, unless you decide to become good with MS Access.

Using Excel Without Understanding Algebra is a Mistake

I can’t be any clearer than that sentence.

The beauty of Excel is in its formulas, not in its interface.  If you want to become good at Excel, you need to purchase a used high school algebra book and study.

Avoiding Excel Formula Functions is a Mistake

This is kind of like my comment on learning algebra.

Last time I checked, there were over 200 Excel formula functions.  You don’t need to learn all 200.  If you know 10 formula functions you’re better than 80% of all Excel users.  If you know more than 20 Excel functions, you’re the Excel expert in your office.

Learning Excel formula functions is not the same thing as re-learning algebra.

Using a sports analogy, Excel formula functions are to algebra what shooting, dribbling, passing, are to basketball.  Make sense?

Submitting Budgets Without Peer Review is a Mistake

I know, I know, you were expecting magical Excel formulas and techniques in this blog post.  But if you’ve read this post this far you’re an avid Excel student.

If you are submitting an Excel budget you made to your manager, showing it to a talented co-worker would be a good idea.

If you’re a manager submitting an Excel budget to another manager, discussing its accuracy with your staff is an excellent idea.

People make mistakes with Excel budgets in government, business, and non-profits all the time.  If you’re the one making the budget mistake, you are having a bad career day.  If you don’t believe that governments make mistakes with Excel spreadsheets and budgets, just read about the Knox County spreadsheet error.

Not Learning from Other People’s Spreadsheets is a Mistake

If you stay with spreadsheets long enough you become a connoisseur or fan of fine spreadsheets.

  1. When you see a beautiful chart made with Excel, you tell yourself, I can do that.
  2. When you see someone demo a pivot table and you finally understand the power of that technique, you’ll figure out how to do that.
  3. When you observe a simple =IF statement and realize its power, you’ll make that one of the first formula functions you learn.

You can also learn from Other People’s Spreadsheets when you see their horrible errors.

  1. Someone sneaks in numbers when they should have formulas.
  2. Bad Excel users have no explanations on their spreadsheets.
  3. Weak Excel users who don’t understand algebra have two cells of formulas when one formula cell  would have worked.

Study OPS, other people’s spreadsheets, and you will be rewarded with a wealth of knowledge.

Top 10 Microsoft Excel Mistakes

As I said, you probably expected some magical information on formulas in this blog post.

But from my perspective, the top ten Microsoft Excel mistakes were listed in this blog post.  Thanks for letting me be your Excel coach.  If you need private one on one training over the Internet, I can do that for you.  Just leave a comment on this blog post.

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