The story goes that when Germany was pounding enemy countries with its U-boat stealth submarines during World War 1, a journalist asked American humorist Will Rogers what America should do. 

Rogers quipped that it should simply boil the ocean. That would make the U-boats rise to the surface and they could then be easily captured. 

Since then, ‘boiling the ocean’ has become a business buzzword across the world. But what exactly does it mean? Quite simply, it means doing the impossible. Just like boiling an ocean because there’s too much water to ever finish the job. 

In the business world, boiling the ocean also means taking on a potentially impossible project that has too broad a scope.

Teams often boil the ocean to meet sometimes unrealistic and overly ambitious targets. 

DATA ANALYSIS

Boiling the ocean is most common in data analysis. 

Let’s say you were asked to estimate the total number of registered restaurants in India. You spent hours scouring datasets on dozens of government websites to find the exact number. What you did was you just boiled the ocean. 

You could instead have focused your search on an industry association or the restaurants listed on apps such as Zomato, Swiggy, and Foodpanda. And would have arrived at an estimated number much faster.

One often sees teams adopting an unnecessarily complicated strategy to tackle a project. At some point, we’ve all over-analyzed too many resources (because they were available) for several hours to arrive at precise numbers when a simple range would have been good enough. 

The effort-to-impact ratio of such endeavors is very high and almost always delivers limited insights.

AVOID BOILING THE OCEAN

The bottom line is: Avoid boiling the ocean. It can sometimes lead to a waste of time, poor utilization of limited human and material resources, and can be mentally and physically draining.

How can you avoid boiling the ocean in your everyday tasks? The first step is to manage your enthusiasm. Often, one gets too excited by the prospect of a new project and signs up without properly understanding what it entails. 

Sooner or later, you hit a roadblock and the excitement wears off as you are worn down by the drudgery of vast volumes of grunt work. Be smart about what you are signing up for.

The next step is to clearly understand and articulate a task or goal. Do you need a one-page primer or a comprehensive report? Do you need estimated ranges or exact numbers? Do you need a simple slide deck with key points or a fancy one with lots of animation?

Pause and figure out the ask before you embark on a task. That way you won’t end up spending hours and hours going through reams of data for nothing. 

Third, spend some time identifying the most critical aspects of the task or project. Focus on the “vital few” areas or 20% of the things will give you 80% of the results. You’ll be able to leverage your efforts to maximize your outputs.

Fourth, always break down your work into smaller, manageable, and achievable tasks. You don’t gobble the cake in one piece. You consume it slice-by-slice. Break down your overall task. Delegate different team members to tackle different parts of the job. Avoid duplication of efforts, as much as possible

Lastly, course correct frequently as soon as you realize you’re on the wrong track. Show what you are doing to the person who gave you the task early on; ask if you are on the right track, and get feedback. This will ensure you proceed in the right direction and reach the right place.

So, the next time you have a big project on your hands, try not to boil the ocean. Narrow the scope. Focus on the big things. Don’t get bogged down in unnecessary exercises. But at the same time don’t abandon your rigor. Be thorough. Go for gold.


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Nishant is a Senior Specialist, Curriculum at Harappa Education. He nurtures a dream of making world-class higher education and healthcare accessible to everyone in India.

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