Microspeak: Actionable


The word actionable has as its primary meaning "providing grounds for legal action", but in the world of management, it is the secondary meaning "capable of being acted upon" that is more common. Something that is actionable provides a specific demand for action. Although I'm not necessarily a big fan of the word itself, I definitely appreciate the value of the concept it is trying to capture.

Not Actionable Actionable
I'm thirsty. Can I get a glass of water?
This checkbox moved. Move it back.
Explain why you moved it.
Create a duplicate checkbox at the old location.
I'm seeing behavior X. Help me get behavior Y.
Explain why I'm getting X.

The concept is valuable because it emphasizes the importance of clear communication, and making sure people understand what you want. Without it, meetings turn into a passive-aggressive-athon, with people saying, "Oh, sorry, I didn't realize you wanted me to do anything about that. I thought you were just venting."

That's also why I'm not happy with the nounification of the word ask. It's not a requirement; it's not a demand. It's this vague ask thing. How do you prioritize an ask?

Comments (31)
  1. Iain Buckingham says:

    Doable?

  2. BryanK says:

    If you ask me, you prioritize an "ask" along with all the other "ask"s, near the bottom of the list.  If it’s not important enough for you to make it a requirement, or a demand, then it’s not important enough for me to do unless I have nothing else to work on.

    If you want me to do it, make it a requirement.  If you just want me to feel good that you aren’t making requirements, then don’t expect it to get done.  :-P

    But then again, I’m not management, either…

  3. EFF Five says:

    As much as hate the nounification of the word ask, I hate the verbification of the word noun.

  4. David Walker says:

    I like the word "passive-aggressive-athon"!

  5. Lauren Smith says:

    Doesn’t the use of "actionable" communication inadvertently narrow the range of appropriate responses to it? Doesn’t it suppress otherwise appropriate responses that do not fit its perspective?

    It also seems excessively confrontational and demanding rather than mutually supportive.

  6. Nicole DesRosiers says:

    I think that actionable communication is important, and people who are proficient with it learn to write their messages so they are clear that they are willing to accept other approaches.  For example:

    "I’m seeing behavior X, but I had expected in this case that I’d see behavior Y.  Could someone explain to me why X happens?  Is there a different API I should be using that would get me the results I’m looking for?"

    You have to make it clear what you’re looking for, or you will be misunderstood.  Just saying "I’m seeing behavior X" certainly implies that you’re unhappy with the result, but why?  In technical communication, you should generally explain what you were doing, what happened when you did it, and what you were trying to achieve when you did it.  That’ll put the request into context, and you’re much more likely to get the answer that you’re looking for.

    Also, Raymond was translating very short statements into very short statements.  You can see in my example above that being actionable doesn’t mean that you have to be confrontational and/or demanding.

  7. Jess Sightler says:

    "As much as hate the nounification of the word ask, I hate the verbification of the word noun."

    As much as you hate the nounification of the word ask, and the verbification of the word non, I hate the verbification of the word verb.

    :)

  8. Norman Diamond says:

    Not as much as I hate the misspelling of the word non.

    :)

  9. Brian says:

    I have a client that uses the "ask" nounification. It drives me bonkers. What the heck is an "ask"? Is it reimbursable?

  10. Stanlo says:

    "Not as much as I hate the misspelling of the word non."

    You’re starting a passive-aggresive-athon. None of these posts are actionable >:-(.

  11. dmh2000 says:

    an aside: I read the blog entry, found a couple of things I wanted to follow up on, so I used the search box in the upper right. Each search took either 30 something seconds, or failed with a timeout on my end. I tried several times and then gave up.

  12. dmh2000 says:

    As soon as I posted I realized my comment on search taking too long was not actionable! So I learned something.

    I should have said, ‘please explain why search takes so long or doesn’t work at all’.

    [As already explained in the Suggestion Box page, I do not control the blog software. It does what it does and I have no control over it. -Raymond]
  13. MSDN Archive says:

    This is one of those inside Microsoft terms that you tend to take for granted until confronted with the question of what the term is expected to accomplish. It’s ironic because in past jobs I had used the term "request" for an item such as this, but had stopped using it because it just didn’t seem to be "Microsoft" enough.

  14. Jamie says:

    The answer to your query "How do you prioritize an ask?" is 42.

    42 0x2a ‘*’ asterisk, abbreviation ‘ask’

  15. Gene says:

    "If you want me to do it, make it a requirement.  If you just want me to feel good that you aren’t making requirements, then don’t expect it to get done."

    I swear to god that is going on a brass plaque above my desk! If I run into one more person that asks about his feature which he said wasn’t required, it’ll be sniper-rifle-and-clocktower time

  16. Igor says:

    But "ask" is politically correct, right?

  17. Dodgy Bob says:

    The only context we’ve ever used "ask" in is in response to a request from a user.  We reply "That’s a big ask", meaning "Fat chance. It’s not going to happen in this lifetime".

  18. Ray Trent says:

    Nounification and verbification are both *nouns* denoting the action of converting from to a noun or verb by adding suffixes.

    You’re looking for "nounify" and "verbify" to vent your spleens on.

  19. Wolf Logan says:

    "Ask" is something that’s always bothered me. There was already a perfectly good word that means *exactly the same thing*: "request". Instead of "I have an ask", what was wrong with "I have a request"? Was the savings of a single syllable really worth such an awkward construction?

  20. I like nounification. It’s nounizational!

  21. Morten says:

    In Denmark an ask would be a tree. Trees are outside with all the other green stuff. I’m inside. So none of my business. :-)

    But seriously, all this trying not to be confrontational is screwing up communication instead of enabling it. There’s nothing wrong with conflicts as long as they are handled constructively. That’s a skill that can be learned. Is trying to avoid confrontations a sign that *gasp* women are horning in on our playground?!? We’re doomed!*

    As an aside, when Winston Churchill was asked what he thought about the prediction that in the year 2000 women would rule the world, he muttered "They still will, will they?".

    *: Kindly note the tongue in my cheek. The best sysadmin I’ve ever worked with was of the female persuasion. OK?

  22. Richard Cranium says:

    "If you want me to do it, make it a requirement.  If you just want me to feel good that you aren’t making requirements, then don’t expect it to get done."

    Don’t be silly.  If it’s a requirement, they have to pay for it.  If it’s an "ask", it’s for free.

  23. malcontent says:

    How does a statement like "Red Hat users owe us money for our intellectual property in linux" parse?

    Is that an actionable statement?

  24. Chris J says:

    Of all words that are ‘verbed’, "diarize"/"diarise" (depending on whether you’re a left or right pondian) is one of my pet hates: "I’m going to put this in my diary" => "I’m going to diarise this".

  25. George Jansen says:

    On the other hand, many have found my C++ code to be objectionable….

  26. Jonathan says:

    Actionable has good uses in guidelines like "meeting summaries should contain actionalbe items".

    Actionable != Doable:

    Actionable = "capable of being acted upon", as opposed to "so what do you want exactly"

    Doable = "something you can do", as opposed to "something you can’t do (because it’s impossible / etc)"

    When asking people that are not personally commited to getting me answers, I usually number my asks (nyah! to all you ask-haters):

    Hello,

    In scenario A, I see behaviour X when I expect behaviour Y.

    1. Why is that?
    2. Is that intenional? Documented?

    3. How can I get Y?

    etc.

  27. Igor says:

    In scenario A, I see behaviour X when I expect behaviour Y.

    Any hardware guy would ask you for your copy of hardware manual, rip it apart and get you a new one which says you should get Y.

  28. Stephen Jones says:

    —-"I hate the verbification of the word noun"—-

    Yea, as Calvin says, "Verbing weirds language".

  29. Stephen Jones says:

    —-"How does a statement like "Red Hat users owe us money for our intellectual property in linux" parse?

    Is that an actionable statement?"—–

    I’d argue Balmer ought to be sued for chutzpah.

  30. Michael Yam says:

    Add the following to the Microsoft vernacular… in order of increasing importance:

    1. a beg
    2. a plead

    3. an ask

    4. a demand

    5. a mandate

    Sorry, items 4 and 5 are real nouns. File a beg to nounify two unsuspecting verbs. :-)

  31. A corollary to "don’t forget to ask your question".

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