Fighting with formulae in Excel

Excel. Love it, or hate it, there are few of us in white collar jobs who don’t have to grapple with it from time to time and, earlier this evening, after OneNote had yet again decided that syncing shared notebooks via our ageing SharePoint platform as not going to work, I needed to come up with a new way of storing actions and decisions for the management team I’m one member of.

I would have liked to create a SharePoint task list but I don’t have the necessary permissions, or the inclination to find out who can give me them (and then to justify why I need to do this). Which led me back to the tool upon which so many business processes are built: Excel.

On the way, I grappled with some formulae, so I decided to knock up some notes for the next time this happens – or the next person who needs to do something similar…

Nested IFs, SEARCHes and ISERRORs

My Excel workbook is simple: two tabs (“Decisions” and “Actions”).  The Decisions tab looks after itself: three columns with a date, a decision, and the rationale behind it.  Actions is a little more complex (read over-engineered).  I have date, status, action, owner, target date, and notes. Then I want the status to be auto-populated based on the notes (If the notes say complete, then status is “Completed”; if the notes include the word cancelled then the status is “Cancelled”, otherwise the status is “Open”).

This was the first challenge.  Excel doesn’t have an ELSE in its IF function, but you can nest IFs as follows:

IF(logical_test, [value_if_true], (IF(logical_test, [value_if_true], [value_if_false]))

(or use one of the LOOKUP functions).  I combined this with the SEARCH function to look for instances of the word “Cancelled” in the notes and everything was working well with results returned for a match on “Complete”, or an instance of “Cancelled” but then the catch all value if false always returned a #VALUE! error.

As SEARCH will always return #VALUE! if the search string is not present, I started to look for workarounds.  Some googling told me that I need to test for an error condition with the ISERROR function but that didn’t seem to solve the issue. So I reversed the logic – check for the error first andthen take action accordingly:

=IF(F2="Complete", "Completed", IF(ISERROR(SEARCH("Cancelled",F2))=TRUE,"Open", IF(SEARCH("Cancelled",F2), "Cancelled")))

It may be easier to understand this in some form of pseudocode:

IF cellvalue="Complete"
status = "Completed"
IF cellvalue doesn't contain "Cancelled"
status = "Open"
IF cellvalue contains "Cancelled"
status = "Cancelled"

Conditional formatting based on cell contents

The next thing I wanted to do was to format each item in the action list according to it’s status and/or date. I wanted to colour completed actions grey; mark cancelled actions as grey and strikethrough the font, then add a red/amber/green status on open actions according to the target date. Conditional formatting did the trick here but I wasn’t sure how to highlight a row based on the contents of one cell in the row.

I found the answer on the HowToGeek site and key to this is not worrying that the reference to the cell used to test the logic is a single cell – Excel is smart enough to work out that you need the same column on the next row when evaluating the condition there.

So, I ended up with six rules, three of which use the TODAY function to evaluate whether the task is overdue or not (or due today):

Formula Format
=$B2="Cancelled" AaBbCcYyZz
=$B2="Completed" AaBbCcYyZz
=$E2="" No format set
=$E2<TODAY() AaBbCcYyZz
=$E2=TODAY() AaBbCcYyZz
=$E2>TODAY() AaBbCcYyZz

It may all be a bit OTT, but I for one work in a very visual manner – I need documents to show me something, not just rely on reading the text.  Hopefully this will work out to be a useful tool for us…


  • Bruce L
    Wednesday 23 April 2014 - 8:56 | Permalink

    The IFERROR function in XL2007+ can help reduce the number of functions required:

    =IF(F2=”Complete”, “Completed”, IFERROR(SEARCH(“Cancelled”,F2),”Open”,”Cancelled”))

  • Bruce L
    Wednesday 23 April 2014 - 9:14 | Permalink

    Oops! That should actually be:

    =IF(F2=”Complete”, “Completed”, IFERROR(SEARCH(“Cancelled”,F2),”Cancelled”,”Open”))

  • Thursday 24 April 2014 - 17:27 | Permalink

    Thanks for that Bruce!

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