Two birds (one real, one made out of felt, smaller with the same coloring).  Text overlay that says "it me but smol"

Recently, I was chatting with my pal and visionary thought leader Sam Adiv about all things changemaker + design + data + empowerment (aka the dreammmm) and he introduced me to this framework of “t-shirt sizes” to describe how complicated a project might become. I haven’t told you this yet, Sam, but I’ve been thinking about this concept ever since. So if you’re reading along, thank you sooo much for being such a generous interlocutor. (And no, I’m not talking to myself in the third person).

Let’s set aside the societal connotations about how large=bad somehow (if you need a little help, and let’s be real, who doesn’t?, do yourself a favor and check out two of my favorite photographers, Shoog McDaniel and Cheyenne Gil. cw: nudity). For the purpose of this blogpost, we’re size neutral! All sizes have no objective value one way or the other. They’re just descriptive and they’re all good in my eyes.

There’s almost always more than one way to solve a problem. And there’s always more than one problem to solve. So this post is also kind of about choosing the problems in the right order, and picking solutions with the right amount of complexity. First, I’ll review 3 recent data requests that I worked on (1 paid, 2 volunteer) and how I categorized them. Then, I’ll share some of the criteria that I use to understand the complexity of a project. Finally, I’ll keep you entertained with a steady flow of baby animal memes. You can thank me later 😉


Dear Spreadsheet Whisperer,

We are designing a system to call all of our members to check in during these COVID times. Can you help us design a system with contact information, notes, and instructions to help 30 volunteers call through a list of 250 people?

Heck ya! What a great idea. After I ask a couple of follow up questions (organize contacts by household or individual rows? how many calls will each person receive? how do we want to handle opt outs? etc), I was able to design a simple spreadsheet system with (1) Instructions Tab (2) Members tab (3) Volunteers tab. Then, I added collapsible “notes” columns in the Members tab, so that we could see notes from each week, but volunteers only need to see one week at a time. We hosted the system in Google Sheets so that we could accommodate multiple editors. I also “locked” the contact info section so that it couldn’t be modified/deleted by a wayward volunteer.

There are more complicated ways to solve the problem (tabs each week, uploading the call notes into Salesforce, making custom views for each volunteer, and more!!) but guess what? Those wouldn’t really be much better than what we already have! Simple is golden 🙂


Dear Spreadsheet Whisperer,

I work with an organization that collects financial and demographic info about marginalized people. I feel nervous about keeping the info online because of data privacy and security concerns. What’s the most ethical and safe and pragmatic way to store sensitive data?

After talking with a few friends, I think your safest option is to use an old computer for this dedicated purpose (don’t use Wifi, don’t go on the internet, don’t email the spreadsheet to anyone). With a few relatively simple security measures (like adding a password and encrypting your harddrive), you can keep your spreadsheet nice and safe. There are more complicated ways to solve the problem, but they won’t really get you much farther! I consider this medium because it required some research, and the stakes are high, but the recommended approach is quite straight-forward to implement.


Dear Spreadsheet Whisperer,

My organization is rolling out a new program evaluation system and we want to conduct pre, mid, and post volunteer surveys. What’s the best way to set this up? Help!

Hooo-boy this one can get complicated quickly! Some immediate questions that come to mind for me are… will the questions change on each survey? when are the surveys administered? how will the data be analyzed? are the surveys responses anonymous? The first step is making the survey instrument… usually some type of form (and potentially selecting which form platform is right for you). The second step is “normalizing” the responses, so having as many multiple choice questions as possible, rather than free-response, so that you can compare results later. The third step is figuring out if/how you want to connect survey responses to unique identifiers (like Email or another ID) because you want to trace how an individual person’s answers have evolved. The fourth step is building and testing the whole apparatus. The fifth step is administering it, and then tweaking as you go. The sixth step is analyzing results and sharing those insights as quickly as reasonably possible. This can get pretty tricky because you are talking about multiple surveys per person, and potentially multiple integrated technologies (email, survey tool, spreadsheet, data model, database (optional), etc). Also, it will require some significant testing, especially if there is conditional logic in the survey questions… or you want to send survey reminders to anyone who hasn’t submitted. As projects go, I’d say this one is pretty large! It will probably unfold over a series of weeks, if not months, before it is ready to go.

Soo wut?

With many spreadsheet projects, the hardest part is getting started. And in my experience, sometimes the hardest part of getting started is deciding if you’re doing an overhaul, a small tweak, or somewhere in between. Not knowing if a given scenario is easy or hard, or if there’s an easier work-around to avoid a super-hard thing, feeds the overwhelm/impostor machine. It’s so clarifying and liberating to just know what you’re getting yourself into. I love to work with people to come to conclusions like:

  • this is a breeze!
  • this is challenging, but you can totally do it!
  • this is really tough, but Person C can help!
  • this is so complicated that it might not be worth it
  • the simple solution would look like x and the complex solution would look like y
  • let’s prioritize how this compares to Problem Z
  • this is hard because of a skill gap – you can totally learn it!
  • this is hard because the technology doesn’t handle this well 🙁

Here are some of the questions that I like to ask to help me understand the complexity:

  • Is something broken or do you want to create something new? If broken, how specific is the error message?
  • Is this going to be a one time thing or repeated?
  • Is this going to use technology you already have?
  • Does this require tech platforms “talking” with other tech platforms?
  • Is there a backlog of data that will need to be converted into the new system?
  • How would you describe your mindset?
  • Do I know someone who has done this thing before, or something similar?

Whether it’s learning a new formula or implementing an entirely new feature or even a new platform, having an honest assessment of complexity makes a huge difference. As a Spreadsheet Whisperer, it might be one of the most simple, flying-under-the-radar, but-nonetheless-essential ways that I can help!

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