Post from Transformation Tom- Don’t Try to Boil the Ocean: Chapter from “The Transformation of a Doubting Thomas”

Posted by tomdowd - March 11, 2019 - News - No Comments

The first time I ever heard the corporate jargon, “you can’t boil the ocean,” I was impressed with the simplicity and obvious nature of the statement. We have all bitten off more than we could chew at one time or another. I would think there are enough clichés related to this topic for all of us to get the point. However, we don’t get the point. Whether we are in an effort to overachieve, trying to do too much, or trying to be the corporate hero, we all try to boil the ocean sometime.

Boil the Ocean2

There are a couple of key points. First, I have worked for managers who were unclear in their expectations of me relating to deliverables. The vagueness, or in some cases, vastness of the request was not realistic. I am all for stretch goals and the reach required to develop me while strengthening the business. However, if you’re asked to solve world peace, and your manager wanted you to think globally and act locally, these are two different requests (I couldn’t resist the additional cliché). The requester should have the end result in mind in order for the task to be fully understood and determined feasible. If the realistic nature of the end state is in question, refer back to the requestor. An assessment may be needed to determine if the request is even possible prior to investing too much into an unattainable request. However, the expectation needs to be clear that you are being asked for an assessment, not the ultimate end state.

Second, if you are the one doing the tasks, you can’t take on the world by yourself all the time. If you try to boil the ocean by yourself, you will only succeed in increasing your frustration over time. I am a huge fan of small victories. I am not taking the easy way out, but I want you to be accepting of recognition for successful progression. The small victories will add up to many large wins. However, if you are constantly swinging for home runs, you may eventually hit one, but only after you strike out quite a few times. If you go for solid hits, and use the support system around you, you will all succeed as a team (I couldn’t resist the baseball analogy). If you are the recipient of the grandiose “empty out the ocean” instructions, break it down into smaller parts. You need to also understand ultimately what the end result should look like. If you do not understand the expectations, ask clarifying questions until you get it.

Sometimes, managers aren’t exactly sure what we are asking. Managers may pass down information that is filtered, and re-translated. It is your obligation to slow down the process enough for clear directions in order to increase satisfaction, improve production, and gain more wins by not boiling the ocean. If there is a big body of water in front of you, gather the team, resources, and invest the time required to confirm expectations needed to navigate through it. Far too many times, we attempt to do too much on our own. We can divide the responsibilities based on skill set, experience level, or many other ways. The point is the team can accomplish more with clear instruction and role clarity.

Our success is in our ability to know what is being asked of us and that we can’t do it all on our own. The best leaders make sure they know what is being asked of them and don’t do it by themselves. They surround themselves with a well organized team, delegate effectively, and play to everyone’s strengths.



Thomas B. Dowd III’s books available in softcover, eBook, and audiobook (From Fear to Success only):

  • Now What? The Ultimate Graduation Gift for Professional Success
  • Time Management Manifesto: Expert Strategies to Create an Effective Work/Life Balance
  • Displacement Day: When My Job was Looking for a Job…A Reference Guide to Finding Work
  • The Transformation of a Doubting Thomas: Growing from a Cynic to a Professional in the Corporate World
  • From Fear to Success: A Practical Public-speaking Guide received the Gold Medal at the 2013 Axiom Business Book Awards in Business Reference
  • The Unofficial Guide to Fatherhood

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