In 1914 the Germans were sinking U.S. ships in the North Atlantic. It was a turkey shoot because the Germans had the U-boat and we didn’t. Somebody asked the American folk philosopher Will Rogers what we ought to do about it. He thought about it a moment and said, “Well, I think you should boil the ocean.” The man was incredulous. “Boil the ocean?” “Yes,” said Rogers. “I think if you heated up the Atlantic ocean, the submarines would rise to the surface and you could capture them.” “But how do you boil an ocean?” the man asked. Rogers responded, “I’ve given you the solution. It’s up to you to work out the details.”
Boiling the Ocean…or not
We’ve all heard the term, “Boiling the Ocean” to refer to an approach that is broad and ambitious and generally leads to lots of work and very little insight.
Historians will argue about whether it was Will Rogers or Mark Twain or someone else who first used this phrase but that’s besides the point. As the story goes:
What is interesting for us—especially as a firm that staffs small elite teams that need to focus quickly on the most important analysis—is how to solve big strategy questions without getting lost in reams of analysis.
One approach that helps avoid having to boil the ocean is choice structuring. Last year I had the opportunity to meet with Prof. Roger Martin (former Dean of the Rotman School) who developed the framework he calls “Strategic Choice Structuring”. What struck me most in our conversation was that while at a former firm where I was first introduced to these methods we used a rather formalized version, he seemed much more pragmatic about how to use the process. This resonated with me because we adjust our approach every single time in order to meet the needs of the specific strategy question, the knowledge context, the level of uncertainty and the decision making context (team, leadership dynamics, time-frame, etc.).
At Recon we’ve used such variations of choice structuring multiple times. We’ve used it to run entire projects; we’ve used it to guide workshops that lead to aligned decision making; and, we’ve used it as a targeted tactic to resolve a particular leadership misalignment within a larger project. In every case, we’ve modified the approach to best suit the particular need. For instance: for a long term corporate strategy for a payer we combined it with a traditional scenario planning approach so as to address the environmental discontinuities that potentially existed; for a new service line introduction for an EMR vendor we combined it with pricing theory to help make the critical choice about whether to bundle or not; for a statewide HIE with a (very) large board we used a survey to elicit the underlying beliefs of board members and then used that to frame the choices and conditions (rather than the more conventional “beliefs’ audit”…
The basic method is not complicated but in practice it’s not at all easy to adapt to your situation and do well. It takes a logical and analytically oriented mind, solid business judgement and, most importantly, an understanding of how to harness leadership team dynamics in order to gain alignment around the “right” answer.
There’s nothing like actually working through a choice structuring exercise to see why this is such a powerful method but a good way to get started on the topic is these two articles by Prof. Martin.