Organizational Change: Avoid ‘The Spreadsheet Mentality’

Organizational Change and The Spreadsheet Mentality

I write about topics related to organizational change a lot. Just a few days back, I wrote about the intersection point of productivity, organizational alignment, and self-awareness. (Many companies and individuals struggle with that point.) A couple of days before that, I wrote about change management approaches. It’s interesting to me.

By way of a slight bit of context, here’s my deal: I went to graduate school for HR and organizational change issues from 2012 to 2014, over and up at the University of Minnesota. I had never lived in Minneapolis before that, and the place is a bit insular, so socially it wasn’t awesome. Obviously don’t get me started on the weather. And as for the graduate program I was in, well … it had pros and cons. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to anyone, though. I was trying to make a career change and better myself financially, and it ended up pretty much moving in the opposite direction — so now I work freelance and make less money. But you know what? Everything happens for a reason, and it’s probably best for me. I’ve never been great at office jobs, to be totally honest.

I’ve worked at a lot of them, though — and had a lot of different bosses and seen a lot of different organizational change processes begin, stop and start, falter, re-begin, stop and start, and ultimately be tossed out the window like rubbish. This happens at a lot of places.

And it happens because of The Spreadsheet Mentality, which is something that needs to be avoided.

Organizational change: What is The Spreadsheet Mentality?

You can probably figure this out on your own, but I’ll walk you through it a little bit. In simplest terms, The Spreadsheet Mentality comes from the age-old executive wisdom of “Only what’s measured is what matters.” As a result of that wisdom, the underlying assumption becomes: “If it can be tracked, it’s important. If it can’t be tracked, it’s less important.”

That’s basically The Spreadsheet Mentality. It’s absolutely toxic to organizational change.

Here’s why: by and large, effective leadership is actually about what most executives and leaders would probably call “soft skills.” Leadership and management are not really about hitting targets and goals as much as they’re about managing the energy of other people and making sure they’re understanding their goals and how to reach them, etc.

When you adopt The Spreadsheet Mentality, though, those things can’t matter that much — because “energy of employees” is hard to track. As a result, here are majorly-important concepts in a business that become lip service items to executives:

Those are all crucial aspects of a business, but they’re all relatively hard to track in Excel. As a result, they get ignored and people run around bellowing about their 12:15 call with China and their Q2 revenue analysis stand-up with the executive team. Those things are easier to measure.

Also note: the four bullets above all involve people. Talent strategy is who you want. The hiring process is how you get them. Employee engagement is what they feel like at work. Onboarding is where the connection begins.

But because of The Spreadsheet Mentality, we can’t care about people. We care about numbers, goals, targets, year-over-years, ROI, KPIs, deliverables, metrics, etc. People become interchangeable via The Spreadsheet Mentality.

If you reached this point and said to yourself “What does this kid know about organizational change? He’s just some freelancer! What are these theories?” — well, thanks for doubting me, sir or madam. I thrive on that.

Here’s an article from Wharton — more vetted than me — on how layoffs hurt companies. There’s a lot of great stuff in there about how companies basically lay people off to hit revenue goals because dropping salary is the cheapest way to get growth, but here’s an excellent paragraph on The Spreadsheet Mentality:

Employers also often underestimate the cost of layoffs in immediate financial terms, as well as in the lingering burden it places on remaining resources — both financially and emotionally. “There is definitely a huge problem in HR generally that the stuff that is easy to put on a spreadsheet outweighs the stuff that isn’t,” says Bidwell.

Read the last sentence. That’s The Spreadsheet Mentality. And it’s a problem in HR, yes — but it’s also a problem everywhere else in a business.

(Final quick note here: the absolutely most ironic thing about The Spreadsheet Mentality is that most executives have no clue at all how to take information from a spreadsheet and use it to drive decision-making.)

Organizational change: Why do people matter?

It’s a shame I need to articulate why people matter, but let’s do so with a quick anecdote.

Let’s say you work at a company that makes widgets. You’re predominantly on a team of four and you have a solid workload among the four of you, even if maybe 2 of you are chasing The Temple of Busy. Some middle manager in the company — potentially your boss, but not necessarily so — is a huge fan of The Spreadsheet Mentality. He/she also believes people are relatively interchangeable and we can easily grab a new hire who will ‘hit the ground running’ in terms of targets and deliverables.


The company has a revenue rough patch, and some top dog barks that cuts are needed. The middle manager from before isn’t a huge fan of one of your teammates, so via politics and unclear organizational priority, he/she gets your co-worker forced out the door.

This stuff happens all the time.

Here’s what now has happened to you:

  • You lost a teammate and potential friend at work, which has emotional repercussions
  • The 4-person workload is now a 3-person workload, and …
  • … you’re probably not hiring anyone immediately because of the revenue rough patch that led to the departure, so …
  • … your workload just got increased while your happiness just got decreased, so …
  • … how long until you’re casually looking for other jobs, and then how long until you’re …
  • … actively on interviews?

It moves faster than you think. Dominoes, you know? Organizational change is all about people and their shifting roles, responsibilities, and emotional ties back to the work and purpose. Unfortunately, we often don’t understand that because of The Spreadsheet Mentality.

Organizational change: Can we fix The Spreadsheet Mentality?

Probably not, in reality. Executives will always be told that their job is to chase money and growth, and the way you document that chase is through The Spreadsheet Mentality and a bunch of completely ridiculous buzzwords flying around in all-hands meetings every month or so. That’s life.

In essence, we should think about ‘what work is’ differently. We should construe it as two tracks, and approach organizational change in that way.

  • There’s a business and revenue track.
  • There’s a people track.

Both are crucially important to success, and both need to be acknowledged. HR cannot be the only shepherds of “the people track,” or else it will just get ignored.

Basically, for organizational change to be effective, this is what we need to realize:

  • An organization has goals and targets.
  • Those goals and targets are achieved by individuals working on them.
  • Those individuals also have goals and targets, er, individually.
  • Those organizational goals need to somewhat align with those individual goals for anything to work long-term.
  • Whenever we encounter something we can’t track immediately with an Excel cell, we need to think to ourselves, “Could this still be important?”
  • We need to realize that the departure of people and the disconnectedness of people has really bad outcomes for a business bottom line, even if we can’t see that at our 1:30pm revenue call with the exec team.

I guess I’m ultimately saying “care” or “give a crap about people” as the cornerstone of organizational change, but the first step we need to embrace is trying to eliminate, or at least somewhat alter, The Spreadsheet Mentality.

Ted Bauer

Reply If You'd Like