Merge's Blog

Boiling the ocean will not result in good decisions

good decisionsAs a leader, it is your responsibility to make good decisions.  In your department or organization, you are likely called on repeatedly to evaluate and implement a variety of projects.  And many of these initiatives will probably require investigation and research in order to determine alternatives and make recommendations.  But exactly how much research should one do to be able to make good decisions?  That is a conundrum that many leaders face.

There are certainly situations where leaders have been known to make decisions too quickly, without considering all available information.  But in my experience, it is the opposite that is much more likely; in their quest for more data or analysis, the job or project is made unnecessarily difficult, and decision-making is delayed.

Don’t try to boil the ocean!

The apt metaphor in this situation is that of boiling a pot of water versus boiling the ocean.  Boiling a pot of water is a relatively easy task.  It takes a short amount of time, and at the end, the outcome is the desired hot water.  But boiling the ocean is an impossible undertaking.  No matter how hard you try, you will never get to the intended outcome. Boiling the ocean is the metaphoric equivalent of delving into such minute detail that a project becomes impossible to complete.  Boiling a pot of water is the metaphoric equivalent on making good decisions.

Here is an example.  If you invest significant effort into forecasting monthly revenues and expenses for the fifth year of a five-year plan, you’re boiling the ocean.  Given that there is so much change and uncertainty in most business environments, the time and energy that it takes to project sales and costs with any level of confidence five years into the future is time and energy wasted.  It would be far more effective to focus on detailed projections for years one and two of the plan, and simply estimate numbers for the final years of the five-year plan.  In other words, boil the pot of water, don’t boil the ocean.

So, what have been your experiences?  Have you observed situations where people are trying to boil the ocean?  What is the outcome?  How have you dealt with it in your role?  Please share your perspectives by commenting below.

I often blog about how leaders can improve their skill at making good decisions.  Here are some past blog posts on this subject:

2 thoughts on “Boiling the ocean will not result in good decisions

  1. Very good message, Merge. Another way to expressing the message is, “don’t boil the ocean to cook a few fish”. There are times when it’s not productive to spend hours and days on situations analysis that don’t contribute to a different outcome. Focus on the end-game and the information that is necessary to make decisions to get there.

  2. Oh I like your version Jim! And of course, you and I see this the same way … it doesn’t make sense to invest energy in activities that only produce marginal incremental improvement.

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