3 spreadsheet horror stories from the world of work

halloween pumpkin with spreadsheet smile

Whether you have a love-hate relationship with spreadsheets and their fear-inducing formulas, or you’re a spreadsheet junkie who believes they create order in a disordered world, you’re not alone. As reported by the European Business Review, 200 million people worldwide rely on spreadsheets each year to store and analyse financial and other quantifiable data.

However, according to MarketWatch, nearly 90% of spreadsheets contain some type of flaw or error, so it’s safe to say that spreadsheet blunders are the rule, not the exception. If you think spreadsheets are harmless tools of the trade, keep reading! Here are three spreadsheet horror stories that have undermined productivity, siphoned billions of dollars away from the bottom line, and wasted precious business hours.

Spreadsheet horror story #1: A billion-dollar blunder

Human errors in spreadsheets have lead to some catastrophically notable fails. In 2012, JPMorgan Chase incurred a £6 billion trading loss due to a blunder related to using the wrong formula. A post-mortem discovered that that wasn’t the only error: essential data was also accidentally copy and pasted from one spreadsheet to the other. This is a great example of how a simple spreadsheet error can lead to financial mayhem. What begins as a straightforward way to balance the books can soon morph into a data blunder fit to spook even the most ardent spreadsheet diehard.

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Spreadsheet horror story #2: A financial fail of Ivy League proportions

Many economists dream that their work will be influential enough to impact policy makers in the halls of power and beyond, but two renowned Harvard economists left more of an impression than they ever hoped to.

Reinhart and Rogoff published a landmark 2010 study that explored the relationship between high government debt and economic growth. The study had global implications: it was hailed by U.S. lawmakers who relied on the data to craft economic policy, fellow academics were impressed by its wide-ranging analysis, and governments around the world integrated the research into their annual economic forecasts. The only problem? The 2010 publication contained an overlooked spreadsheet flaw, which was only revealed after a graduate student tried to replicate the results.

To err is human, but spreadsheets are especially prone to failure because errors are easy to make but hard to catch.

Spreadsheet horror story #3: An Olympic-sized catastrophe

It would seem that not even the Olympics are immune to the horrors of the spreadsheet. Organisers for the 2012 London games famously oversold a swimming event by 10,000 tickets, all due to a single keystroke error which made it appear as if 20,000 tickets were available when the venue could only accommodate half that number.

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