Understanding the ‘Boil the Ocean’ Concept


“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 and among startup companies, as well as in other group settings, and is considered to be a negative phrase in relation to how one approaches a task.

What is “boil the ocean”?

“Boil the ocean” is an idiomatic expression that often crops up in business, startup companies, and various group settings. It is used to describe the act of undertaking an impossible task or making a task unnecessarily complicated, ultimately rendering it extremely difficult to accomplish.

Understanding the phrase

In its literal sense, boiling the ocean is an unattainable feat, as the sheer volume of water makes it virtually impossible to boil. Applied to projects or group endeavors, the phrase signifies the act of overcomplicating something to the point where achieving the desired goal becomes unfeasible.

The phrase also carries connotations of going too far or delving excessively into minor details, which can transform a manageable project into an insurmountable challenge. Additionally, it is sometimes used to criticize reports that are overly detailed, filled with jargon, or written in a pompous manner.

While the origins of the phrase remain somewhat mysterious, it has been attributed to various figures like Will Rogers, Mark Twain, and Lewis Carroll, though no direct source has been confirmed.

How not to “boil the ocean”

For project managers and business leaders, it is crucial to avoid “boiling the ocean.” This can be achieved by prioritizing the most critical aspects of a project, ensuring that the right team and resources are in place before commencing, and breaking down large projects into manageable phases.

Focusing on the core pillars of a project and preventing scope creep are essential strategies. Establishing clear objectives, timetables, and frequent progress discussions can help ensure that the project remains achievable.

Criticism of “boiling the ocean”

Some experts argue that the term “boil the ocean” should be used sparingly or retired altogether, as it may not always provide the best guidance. They contend that for complex problems, breaking tasks into smaller, well-assigned components is a practical approach that conserves time and resources.

However, these critics also acknowledge that in certain situations, “boiling the ocean” might be necessary. Complex tasks often have far-reaching implications within an organization, and addressing them comprehensively can yield positive results across the board. Working in isolation may prove ineffective.

Moreover, when dealing with extensive and intricate issues, it may be challenging to determine where to begin and what lies ahead. In such cases, taking an all-inclusive approach and expanding the scope of the project could be the most efficient path to achieving the intended goal.

Examples of “boiling the ocean”

Imagine a manager instructs a team to create a presentation for an American business client based in Houston. Instead of a straightforward presentation, the manager insists that the team prepares versions in Spanish, French, Japanese, Chinese, and Italian, in addition to English, just in case someone at the presentation prefers another language. This turns a simple project into something nearly impossible—a classic case of “boiling the ocean.”

Another example involves a six-month-old startup aiming to secure venture capital funding and go public within a year. While the founder might view this goal as commendably ambitious, the employees tasked with achieving it understand that it’s akin to “boiling the ocean.”

What does it mean to not boil the ocean?

Saying “don’t boil the ocean” essentially advises against taking on more than can realistically be accomplished within a given timeframe or setting oneself up for failure. It underscores the importance of setting achievable goals.

How do you avoid boiling the ocean in business?

Individuals and corporations can avoid “boiling the ocean” by maintaining a clear, realistic perspective regarding what can be achieved within a specific timeframe and with the available resources. This often involves breaking tasks into manageable components rather than tackling insurmountable challenges all at once.

What other idioms involve the ocean?

Another idiom related to the ocean is “a drop in the ocean” or “a drop in the bucket.” It refers to something that constitutes a very small portion of what is actually needed to accomplish a task or goal. For instance, having saved only $500 when aspiring to buy a $500,000 home is truly “a drop in the ocean.”

Weigh the risks and benefits

Here is a list of the benefits and the drawbacks to consider.

  • Helps identify and avoid overly complex projects
  • Encourages efficient project management
  • Emphasizes goal achievability
  • May discourage tackling complex challenges comprehensively
  • Could limit innovation in certain contexts
  • Doesn’t account for scenarios where comprehensive approaches are necessary

Frequently asked questions

What is the literal meaning of “boil the ocean”?

The literal meaning of “boil the ocean” refers to the impossibility of the task due to the vastness of the ocean. It implies that the ocean cannot be boiled, just as some tasks cannot be accomplished.

Who coined the phrase “boil the ocean”?

The exact origin of the phrase “boil the ocean” is unclear, with various sources attributing it to figures like Will Rogers, Mark Twain, and Lewis Carroll. However, no definitive source has been identified.

Is it always advisable to avoid “boiling the ocean” in business?

Avoiding “boiling the ocean” in business is generally a good practice to ensure efficiency and goal achievability. However, in certain complex situations, taking a more comprehensive approach may be necessary for success.

What are some practical strategies for preventing “boiling the ocean” in project management?

Project managers can prevent “boiling the ocean” by prioritizing critical aspects, ensuring the right team and resources, breaking projects into manageable phases, and setting clear objectives and timetables.

Can “boiling the ocean” ever be beneficial in business?

While “boiling the ocean” is typically discouraged, in some cases, tackling complex problems comprehensively can yield positive results, especially when issues are interconnected across an organization.

Are there other idioms related to the ocean that convey a similar message?

Yes, another idiom related to the ocean is “a drop in the ocean” or “a drop in the bucket.” It signifies a small contribution towards a much larger goal.

Can you provide more examples of situations where people “boil the ocean” in business?

Certainly, in addition to the examples in the article, people can “boil the ocean” in business by overcomplicating product development, excessively expanding market research, or setting unrealistic sales targets.

Key Takeaways

  • “Boil the ocean” means making a task overly complex or attempting the impossible.
  • It is advisable in business to avoid “boiling the ocean” by focusing on achievable goals and efficient management.
  • While avoiding unnecessary complexity is wise, some situations may require a comprehensive approach.
View article sources
  1. Not boiling the ocean – Defra digital, data and technology – Gov.uk
  2. Boiling the Ocean: How a Manufacturer Leveraged … – NIST.gov
  3. How Not To Boil The Ocean -Harappa Education