Relationships without Formulas

People often ask me for a very simple, very short, “instagram for dogs” like explanation of what Resolution is. This is a hard question to answer — and I’ve worked in product marketing for over a decade — just as it would be hard to answer the same question about a spreadsheet or PowerPoint or SalesForce or any number of things.

But, when I have to explain it, conceptually, with that level of non-detail, I usually go with something like “it’s a spreadsheet that doesn’t use formulas“. This is not entirely accurate, but it’s not entirely inaccurate either. There are many things you can do in a spreadsheet that you can’t do in Resolution; some of those you’ll be able to do eventually, and some of them you’ll never be able to do until control of the product is violently wrestled from my hands by private equity suits in some kind of quasi-legal corporate battle.

However, even at launch, Resolution DOES do a bunch of fundamental, common things you’d normally do in a spreadsheet, and it absolutely does them without formulas and (bonus!) without cells.

Why did we do this?

I am not a formula hater by any stretch of the imagination. Formulas are the gateway to spreadsheets that figure out amazing, useful things, and we’re better off for having them in the world. Cells are a necessary component of formulas (although there are probably a lot of ways to make them work better), so I don’t hate those either.

On the other hand, the formula/cell-industrial complex does have some pretty major downsides. The main one is that it’s a lot easier to make things look like they are related to each other than it is to actually establish a correct relationship.

Spreadsheets are like this, frankly, because they’re eagerly awaiting for you to do something a lot more complicated than multiply two things together. That’s why they offer hundreds of functions and concatenation features and things like that. But what they are NOT eagerly awaiting for is you to change your mind about the purpose of your model/system/whatever. There’s no feature that says “hey, I was basing this whole thing on knowing what the revenue goal was, and now I don’t really know anymore, can you calculate it?”

That’s because the spreadsheet just wants cells and formula commands. It doesn’t have another move, and that’s great if you’re awesome at formulas, or someone that you really trust is and they are happy to build you models whenever you need them. That is not most of us, though, especially when we’re not entirely sure what we’re looking for yet and we’re trying to essentially sketch out a rough, verifiable map of what the heck is going on.

A spreadsheet can be that map, as long as (again) someone you really trust made it, and you don’t need to understand why the map says what it says. But you don’t want to MAKE the map with it while you’re driving around, or sailing around, or whatever — I didn’t really set a historical period for this exploration analogy so go ahead and pick whatever you like best.

What’s the alternative?

As I mention in the Resolution Kickstarter video, the basic idea of the project was “what if instead of assigning relationships to existing data with formulas, you set up relationships first and then just plugged data into them?”

That’s essentially the difference between Resolution and spreadsheets. That means that you both (a) never have to build a formula, and (b) everything in your model actually kind of has a formula behind it. That second part is a huge deal because the problem people run into with spreadsheets is not just that they have to build formulas to set relationships, but that they don’t actually have to set up relationships at all. That’s why many real-world spreadsheets are a weird mix of calculated values and plugged in values that are calculated at all, and none of that is validated — or even apparent — when most people look at the spreadsheet or try different scenarios.

And in my experience (which is much more ad-hoc business problem solving than something more structured, like quarterly accounting or inventory management), the real value of working on a spreadsheet is in determining those relationships. That’s what should be litigated, and argued over, and poked at, because if that stuff is wrong or insufficiently vetted, the numbers that come out of them don’t matter.