You can learn a lot from an expert, but a game changer challenges your believes and assumptions and, at some point, that’s exactly what you need to move forward. Creative destruction. I love it.

Let me tell you about three of my personal Excel game changers.

Jon Peltier

Well, I don’t have to tell you about Jon, everyone knows him. He’s the Excel charts expert. If a chart can’t be made in Excel he’ll find a way to make it. And I think he loves a good challenge (I suspect he can’t even sleep before he finds the right solution).

Years ago, I was starting to feel uncomfortable with the available Excel charts and with data visualization in general. So, I started searching and found, more or less at the same time, both Edward Tufte and Jon’s website. What more could I ask for? Back then, I wasn’t even remotely aware that you can use combination charts and dummy series to extend the Excel charts library well beyond its limited options. It was an eye-opener for sure.

Jon is a chef that knows that each ingredient, even the plainest one, has a secret that deserves to be revealed. Today I understand the basic principles and try to apply them (“geo-scatterplot“, the “consultant’s chart“, the “pie on steroids” and even the thematic map) but they are clumsy attempts, compared to what Jon is able to do.

Here’s a simple example. In my “pie-on-steroids” chart, I wanted to remove the hole but I was unable to. At some point I got stuck. In this post, Jon kindly removes the roadblock and tells us simple mortals how to do it the right way. If you don’t want to be bothered with details, Jon has some chart utilities that simplify the process of making charts not available in the Excel chart library.

Daniel Ferry

For the casual reader, some of the posts in the Excel Hero blog may seem nothing more than ball juggling, fascinating but useless for “serious” work. And that’s probably right, if you just want a quick Excel tip. Daniel approaches Excel from a more abstract perspective, and that means that he has a deeper understanding of concepts and relationships that ultimately leads to more sophisticated and practical solutions. A chess game viewer may not be what you need to solve a problem now, but try to figure out how it works and you’ll start approaching your projects from a different perspective too. Do you want something with real impact now? Start avoiding the IF() function.

Daniel opened recently the doors of his Excel Hero Academy and module one was fantastic. He keeps switching between the conceptual and the practical levels and not only that makes a very engaging presentation but you also feel that you’ll leave the course with a muche stronger framework to approach any project in Excel. Highly recomendable for intermediate to advanced users.

Andreas Lippheardt

[Update: unfortunately, Andreas has passed away in 2012 and Bonavista is no longer in business. I will leave this text as a small tribute to his work]  I believe that users can solve their own problems with the right tools, the right rules and the right knowledge. Given them that, make sure the IT sticks to a basic infrastructure management and you’ll get a much more knowledgeable organization. Now, start from there, add Excel, add data visualization best practices and you get Andreas.

Andreas has strong views regarding the role of IT and much of his work is devoted to empowering users. He’s the owner of Bonavista Systems, maker of MicroCharts, probably the best implementation of Tufte’s sparklines in Excel. He also teamed up with Stephen Few to create the Chart Tamer, an add-in that simpliflies tha process of selecting the right chart and provides much better formatting defaults. The company is lunching two new tools, the Bonavista Dimensions that you can use to create powerful interactive dashboards (again, using data visualization best practices) and the Bonavista Web, to publish Excel dashboards and reports online. I will discuss these tools soon.

Who Are Your Excel Game Changers?

Fernando Pessoa, a well-known Portuguese poet, wrote a funny short story about “The Anarchist Banker”. To be an anarchist you have to be free from what Pessoa calls “social fictions”, like money. That’s why only a banker, who has so much money that doesn’t have to think about it, can be the true anarchist. Apparently, many bankers are reading Fernando Pessoa nowadays.

Like an anarchist banker, I want to be free from the tools and focus on the end result. If you are not delegating (I like to build things), your only option is to really master the tool. Again, it’s not only about how much you know. It’s about how  you connect the pieces and make them work together. That’s were Jon, Daniel and Andreas help me think about Excel and make me forget Excel…

What about you? Who would you add to the list? Who changed the way you think and work with Excel? Please share it in the comments below.