What the Phrase "Boil the Ocean" Means in Business

Steam rising off of ocean from lava flow
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You may have heard the phrase, "to boil the ocean," at some point in your professional career. You may not have known what this quirky statement meant, though. In common use, the expression is meant to call someone out for taking on an overly large and potentially impossible task given the reality of your resources. The phrase implies a disconnection from reality. It's a criticism, or at least a negative comment, on an approach that someone is taking to solve a problem. 

Examples of "Boil the Ocean" in Action

Here are a few real-world examples to illustrate the meaning a bit more clearly:

  1. In preparation for the visit of a senior board member of a global manufacturer, the general manager had his team prepare a virtually endless stream of reports and analyses on the business to present to the dignitary. For weeks, senior managers occupied their time preparing presentation after presentation. When finished, the stack of reports was almost a foot high. After arriving and handling introductions, the senior executive looked at all of the reports and said, "These are excuses, and I do not want to see them. Now, I want to ask you a few questions about your business." In this instance, the general manager had boiled the ocean. 
  2. In another multinational firm, a good portion of every year was devoted to fine-tuning the three-year financial plan. While developing a long-range view for a business has some merits, the value of attempting to confidently forecast month-by-month costs and revenues far into the future in a world characterized by change and uncertainty is an exercise in boiling the ocean. 
  3. During a strategic planning activity with the management team of a technology company, the participants spent days attempting to assess the strategies of every competitor in the marketplace. As the days wore on, the competitors they were analyzing were arguably either insignificant or so far removed from what this smaller company was engaged in that the exercise ultimately proved to be a futile effort in ocean boiling. 
  4. "Bob is trying to boil the ocean with our customer satisfaction study. He thinks he can identify the top three customer satisfaction complaints for all our products for the past year, develop solutions, and have a presentation ready in two days."
  5. "Javier, don't boil the ocean. Our current quality assessment process is statistically significant. We cannot possibly inspect every item that comes off the production line. That would be a flawed system."

In order to avoid boiling the ocean in business, you must have a clear idea of your company's or team's objectives and available resources.

Discussions and Ocean Boiling

Many business clichés are applied to a variety of situations and, "boil the ocean" is no exception. In addition to the primary connotation of taking on an overly large and impractical or implausible task, the phrase is often used in group settings in an attempt to rein in and focus an out-of-control discussion. 

  • "Your suggestion that we solve all of these problems at one time is boiling the ocean."
  • "This is an important topic, but it's a lot larger than the issue we are attempting to resolve. We are boiling the ocean and we need to focus our ideas on the immediate problem in front of us."

Effective meeting- and discussion-management practices help minimize the threat of ocean boiling in group settings. 

  • Always propose and gain agreement for a clear meeting agenda.
  • Frame problems or situations carefully to ensure they have boundaries.
  • Facilitate discussions and immediately rein in any attempt to expand the scope of the issue.
  • As other ideas are raised that are outside the scope of the discussion, make certain to capture them on a whiteboard, flip-chart, or computer for future reference. Some facilitators describe this as putting ideas in the parking lot (another business cliché). 

Boil With Care

Use the phrase, "boil the ocean" carefully or not at all. Effective communicators strive to offer clear words and images to make a point, and while the idea of an ocean boiling is a powerful image, its meaning in the workplace is often vague. At the very least, relying on clichés is usually not the most effective way to get your message across.

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