“Boil the ocean” is an idiomatic phrase that means to undertake an impossible task or project or to make a job or project unnecessarily difficult. The phrase appears in business as well as in other group settings and is considered to be a negative phrase in relation to how one approaches a task.
The phrase is used in a variety of settings as a negative comment on how one conducts business or projects.
The phrase derives from the literal concept of boiling the ocean, which is an impossible task.
To avoid boiling the ocean, tasks and projects should have clear guidelines within the resources provided, frequent discussions on progress, and provisions against any unnecessary expansion.
In the literal sense, boiling the ocean is impossible because there’s too much water for boiling it to be feasible. Boiling the actual ocean would be an impossible task. When applied to groups or projects, the phrase can simply mean making something so complicated that the goal becomes impossible.
The phrase “boil the ocean” has the additional connotation of going overboard or delving into such minute detail that a project becomes impossible. It also is sometimes heard as a derisory comment on a written or verbal report that is filled with unnecessary detail, insider jargon, or pompous language.
As with many phrases of this type, its origins are somewhat mysterious. Various sources point to Will Rogers, Mark Twain, and Lewis Carroll as the originators of the phrase; however, no direct attribution has been identified.
For project managers and business leaders, it is especially important to avoid boiling the ocean. Management can accomplish this by focusing on the most critical parts of a project. They can make sure they have the right team and the right resources in place before starting a project. They may break large projects into smaller units, accomplishing steps rather than failing by bounds.
It’s critical to focus on the core points of a project and not let it run away. Creating boundaries within the given resources can help to achieve this, and stopping any efforts to expand the scope of the project is imperative.
Having clear agendas, a timetable, and frequent discussions on the progress of a project can help ensure that it does not become impossible to achieve the stated goals.
Some business experts believe that the term “boil the ocean” should be retired or used only specifically as it does not adequately provide sage advice. These critics believe that the phrase works for complicated problems, whereby breaking down tasks and assigning them to those best suited is a smart move that saves time and resources.
However, these critics also believe that the ocean should be boiled when approaching complex tasks. This is so because most complex tasks within an organization have a link to all parts of the organization and working on a larger scale ensures that any changes or new implementations impact all parts of the organization equally and positively. Working in isolation could be fruitless.
Furthermore, complex problems can be so vast, it can be difficult to know where to start and what awaits down the line as a project progresses. Therefore, avoiding one area to focus on another might not be the best strategy. Here, being all-inclusive and expanding the breadth of the project may be the quickest and most successful way to achieve the intended goal.
Say a manager directed a team to prepare a presentation for an American business client based in Houston. Instead of requesting a straightforward presentation, the manager may insist that the employees prepare versions in Spanish, French, Japanese, Chinese, and Italian as well as English, just in case someone at the presentation prefers to hear it in one of those languages. The manager has taken a simple project and turned it into something which is near-impossible. In fact, the ocean is boiling.
Another example might be a six-month-old startup company that has set a goal of obtaining venture capital funding and going public by the end of the year. Such a goal might seem laudably ambitious to the company’s founder. The employees who are tasked with getting it done know it’s boiling the ocean.