Friday, November 8, 2013

What it means to "Boil the Ocean" and why it's important to avoid doing it

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The term "boiling the ocean" is used to describe any task that's impossible because it has been incorrectly scoped.  In this post I'll explain what that might look like on a McKinsey engagement - or a project for a McKinsey boss - and what to do about it...

What does "boiling the ocean" look like?

Literally boiling the ocean is impossible because there's just too much water to ever complete the task.  The same applies for figuratively boiling the ocean on a consulting project.  Unless scope is carefully managed, it's easy for a consultant or team to take on more than they can handle in a workstream or project.

The most common example is trying to analyze too much data.  In a world of big data, the ability for clients to collect mountains of data has outstripped their ability to manage, clean, and analyze it to uncover meaningful insights.  There are important answers buried in there somewhere, but the more data you have to dig through, the harder it is to find those impactful insights.

The other common cause of boiling the ocean is taking on too many workstreams.  This is often a result of not trimming enough issues from the "issue tree".  For example, your team might be charged with "finding cost savings" for the client.  In most companies, there are countless places to look for cost savings - if you try to address them all, you might not make significant progress against any

Why it's important to avoid boiling the ocean

As you can see in the examples above, boiling the ocean can limit your impact because you have to spread your finite resources thin across too much work or too many worktreams.  You might be able to touch some of the important levers and insights, but you won't be able to go deep on any of them, limiting the impact you can make.

Boiling the ocean also wears down your team.  Inefficiency requires more time and effort be expended to achieve the same amount of impact.  Not only will the team be tired and worn out, but morale will suffer as the results don't match up to the effort.

How to avoid boiling the ocean

Application of the 80/20 rule is the easiest way to avoid boiling the ocean.  By focusing your effort on the "critical few" or "vital few" areas, you can maximize your impact while protecting your team from wasted effort and declining morale.

For data analysis, this means focusing on the most meaningful data sets and cuts of the data.  Are there chunks of data - e.g., business units, geographies, product categories - that can be considered out-of-scope?  For trimming the issue tree and reducing the number of workstreams, can you identify the most promising sources of impact and focus your scope and effort on those?

Delegating some of the work can also help avoid boiling the ocean.  Can you ask the sources of the data (e.g., a client's Finance team) for help on filtering and cleaning some of the raw data?  Do they have reporting tools and/or automated means for reducing the mountain of data without losing sources of insight and impact?  Are there other people who own the sources of impact who can also own the work to maximize the impact captured?


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