No sooner does the Consultant Debunking Unit dip its toe back into the waters of consulting-speak than it stumbles onto jargon that turns out to be all wet.
The phrase in question gets its own special berth in ex-consultant Louis Gerstner's memoir of his years at IBM, Who Says Elephants Can't Dance? (HarperBusiness, 2002): "Boil the Ocean — to use all means and options available to get something done." And that's just a drop in the bucket: An A.T. Kearney consultant told author Betty Vandenbosch his firm's approach was for "when you don't have time to do all the boil-the-ocean analyses." And after WorldCom settled its case with the SEC last year, a board member chastised critics, saying, "You could boil the ocean and not satisfy people."
Does this expression hold water? Smelling something fishy, the CDU fired up its sonar and charted a course for the truth, asking: How many consultants would it take to boil the ocean? And what would happen if they did?
Our first port of call was the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Experts there helped us figure that the world's oceans consist of 275 million cubic miles — enough to fill 1 trillion boardrooms. Okay, but can you boil it? "I don't think so," said NOAA's Carmeyia Gillis. "Maybe a little part of it, if you're right on top of an active volcano or something." The problem is energy — getting enough of it.
To find out how much, we consulted Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics at City University of New York. He confirmed our worst fears: "It would take a lot of energy" — 4.7 x 1026 joules, give or take. "It would probably require more energy than all the fuel on earth." Could a particularly powerful consulting firm do it? "They wouldn't even know where to start," he snorted.
By our calculations, one day of "heavy consulting" involves about 1 x 107 joules of energy. Assuming no vacations, this means every single person on earth would have to consult for more than 26 million years to actually "boil the ocean."
Not to mention what would happen if they succeeded. Our final ahoy was to Jeffrey Chanton, professor of oceanography at Florida State University. What would happen if consultants could boil the ocean? Chanton was not encouraging: "It would mean the end of the life we know on earth. It is a terrible idea."
The phrase was popularized by Will Rogers, who was asked what could be done about U-boats. "Boil the ocean," he suggested. When pressed for exactly how, he is supposed to have said: "It's your job to work out the details!" Now that's true consulting-speak.
Martin Kihn is a management consultant and author of House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time (Warner Books, March 2005).
A version of this article appeared in the November 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.