May 142012

An internship description from the office of general counsel for a major financial services company seeks someone who can provide “actionable solutions.” For one of my MBA students, this represents a golden opportunity. For me, it is a battle lost.

Until the last decade or so, “actionable” had only one meaning: something you could get sued for. That is still the primary definition. If you don’t believe me, see for yourself:

When clients ask me if I can deliver an “actionable communication plan,”  my standard response is, “I certainly hope not.”

But if the office of general counsel—the crack team of legal advisors—for a Fortune 500 company thinks “actionable” means “something that can be acted upon,” can I really continue to hold my ground?
The problem is that there isn’t really any single word that means quite what the misuse of “actionable” communicates. The word “effective” would do it, if we hadn’t already diminished its effectiveness. “Deliverable” would be perfect, except that we’ve turned that into a noun.

“Implementable” is what people are really trying to convey, but that, apparently, isn’t a word.

Still—when has that ever stopped us?

I will continue to reserve “actionable” in its technical, legal sense for the time being. For those of us who know the difference, the misuse is grating—and why take the chance that your reader or listener will be one of the few who knows the difference?

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