What Is Boil the Ocean?

Boiling the ocean is an idiomatic phrase which means to undertake an impossible task or project or to make a job or project unnecessarily difficult. Boiling the ocean generally means to go overboard or to delve into such small detail that a project becomes impossible. The phrase, boil the ocean, appears in business as well as other group settings.

In the literal sense, boiling the ocean is impossible because there's too much water for it to be possible. When applied to groups or projects, it can mean merely making something so complicated that the goal becomes impossible.

As with many phrases of this type, its origins are somewhat mysterious. Sources such as Yahoo Answers and English.StackExchange.com point to Will Rodgers, Mark Twain and Lewis Caroll's poem The Walrus and the Carpenter. However, no direct attribution exists.

How to Avoid Boiling the Ocean

For project managers and business leaders, it is especially important to avoid boiling the ocean. Some ways management can accomplish this includes focusing on the most critical parts of a project. They should make sure they have a team or workplace ability to achieve any given task before starting. Following good management practices, they may determine which teams work well together. Also, they may break large projects into smaller units, accomplishing steps rather than failing by bounds.

Real World Example

For example, a manager might be guilty of boiling the ocean if they directed their employees to prepare a presentation for an American business client based in Houston, Texas. But, instead of requesting a straightforward presentation, the manager may insist that the employees prepare several versions of the display in Spanish, French, Japanese, Chinese and Italian, just in case someone at the presentation spoke a different language. This request takes a simple project and turns it into something which is boiling the ocean since it is unlikely anyone at the presentation is unable to understand the information in English.

Another example of trying to boil the ocean might be a six-month-old startup company trying to get venture capital funding and go public by the end of the year. Such a goal might seem ambitious to the company's founder, but in reality, setting such an unrealistic goal is likely to lead to frustration and disappointment for everyone involved.