The Meaning of Odd Business Phrases: Boil the Ocean

Steam rising off of ocean from lava flow
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The notion of a boiling ocean is not only unappealing, short of a major solar event, it is implausible. Why then do business professionals insist on using this phrase and what do they mean? 

The Meaning of "Boil the Ocean"

The common application of this phrase is to take on an overly large and potentially impossible task given the reality of your resources. The phrase implies a lack of connectivity to reality.

It is a criticism or at least a negative comment on an approach that someone is proposing to solve a problem. 

Five Examples of Ocean Boiling in Action:

  1. In preparation for the visit of a senior board member of this 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 one-foot in height. 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 on a business has some merits, the value of attempting to forecast month by month costs and revenues far into the future with any level of confidence in a world characterized by change and uncertainty, is an exercise in boiling the ocean. 
  1. During a strategic planning activity with a 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 providing that the exercise ultimately proved to be one of ocean boiling. 
  1. "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 and have a presentation ready including our proposed solutions in two days." 

  2. "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." 

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 that is 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 insure 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 out of 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). 

The Bottom Line:

Use the phrase, "boil the ocean" carefully or not at all. Effective communicators strive to offer clear words and images to make their point, and while the idea of an ocean boiling is a powerful image, its meaning in the workplace is often vague.

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Updated by Art Petty