They say “to a man who only has a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.

I’m fascinated by the sheer volume of content out there demonstrating the features of Excel. But very little on how to choose the right tool.

My take on this is, it’s not the tool that should be the first thing we think about. Hence the quote above. Before selecting the tool we need to select the strategy that’s appropriate for what we’re trying to achieve. The path. The route.

Take this simple illustration.

Say you’re a carpenter. You need to drive this nail into a piece of wood. Obviously you’d reach out for the hammer. Right?

Was there a conscious thought process? No. It was kind of intuitive, right?

Now let’s suppose you look in your tool box and you haven’t got your hammer with you. But you have these. A screwdriver, a chisel, a monkey wrench and a mallet.

Which would you choose?

Or rather, HOW would you choose?

Well, hold that thought. Let’s see how you arrived at that. The hammer is the right tool for driving a nail into wood because it has a long stem and a heavy piece (the head) at the top. Right? When you swing it, it produces inertia that’s exerted on the nail. That’s how it works.

So, (unconsciously) for that reason we immediately we reject the screwdriver and the chisel.

But there’s another thing. The head, the piece at the top, needs to be more solid than the object it is hitting.

So the mallet is no good, even though it is meant for hitting things in. But the nail is more solid than the wooden head of the mallet.

So, looks like the monkey wrench is your correct choice.

But here’s the thing. Most people don’t need to consciously think about that.

Why? Because the most people intuitively understand the principle of inertia (even though they may not know how to spell it), and the need for the head to be solid enough.

Those who didn’t understand those aspects may select on the basis of other criteria – such as ‘oooh, this screwdriver is nice and light. I shall use it’. Or ‘oooh, this chisel is a nice pink colour’.

What is the point I’m making?

There are many powerful cool features in Excel. Now more than ever. Some of these are very sexy, and awesome to demonstrate. But how do we select the right tool for a particular task?

You see, with spreadsheets we just do what we used to do before they were on computers. Nobody said there’s a choice in how we think of spreadsheets – just like there was only one way we thought about the paper spreadsheet; ie. the thing on which we wrote numbers.

Mostly, we have no feel for the various different ways of creating workflow with spreadsheets, their characteristics, what’s good in what circumstances etc. Without that we can’t decide on strategy; a workable approach to the problem we’re trying to solve. In the illustration above, it is intuitive to pick the hammer (or the monkey wrench) because because we already understand the principle of inertia and solid-head .

With the kind of problem for which we setup spreadsheets, we don’t have sufficient intuitive understanding of the principles, or the choices, to decide on the right path to take. Or even that there is more than one path.

I’m sure lot of you will disagree. So ….

I have created The Celebrity Chef Spreadsheet Challenge so you can test yourself on this. You’re given a simple problem to solve. You decide on how to approach it. Then in Part 2 you get to evaluate the effectiveness of your chosen approach. (Takes 2 minutes. Nothing to actually do. Just think).

Over to you. Go here for the challenge. TBA.

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Hiran de Silva

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