I’m old enough to remember a bygone era when “implementation” actually meant something. (Note to people of younger years: don’t feel bad; you didn’t miss much. We’re talking the ’70s here. See under: Nixon, Richard or Diamond, Neil.)
Back in the day, “implementation” was a counterpart to “design,” much as “tactic” was connected to “strategy.” It denoted the realm of frontline, operational detail, juxtaposed to the airy abstractions of the ivory tower. Implementation even made reasonable claim to being a management discipline: the science of taking an elegant-but-theoretical plan — an idea for a new program or service, or even a whole new organization — and turning it into day-to-day activity, with employees, hierarchies, tasks to perform, front and back offices, the works.
The test of great leaders or managers (or, come to that, great foundations) was whether they could see an idea “all the way through to implementation.” It was an important word for an important idea. (To see the word at its most gloriously specific, find the 1973 book “Implementation,” by Jeffrey Pressman and Aaron Wildavsky. It’s a masterpiece of readable public-policy scholarship, and still as relevant as it was 35 years ago.)
Sadly, like certain over-privileged children, “implementation” was all but predestined for an eventual life of glamorous dissipation. It’s an impressively long word, for starters, and the sight of all those lovely Latin syllables strung end-on-end soon sent the Panjandrums of public policy and the social sciences into a swoon. In the wood-paneled lecture halls of the Wilson and Kennedy Schools, one simply couldn’t be taken seriously without some treatise on “implementing” this or that. Soon the word was being paraded all over town, exploited for its presumed ability to confer elegance on anyone it touched. It became a kind of lexical Carla Bruni.
To make matters worse, the essential meaning of “implementation” (getting things done) is just elastic enough to be stretched to encompass all sorts of unrelated ideas — or even no idea at all. Like most jargon, “implementation” became obnoxious not by having too obscure and technical a definition, but by having a thousand definitions at once. Its possible meanings ranged from the pedestrian to the fanciful, so that few readers could ever say, with precision, what any given use of the term was trying to describe. By now, most of the time, “implement” just means “do,” or “perform” or “attempt,” and “implementation” just means “being done.” As in: “We implement our work in five areas,” or “The activity will be evaluated within five years of implementation.”
So today, it’s easy to come across a sentence like this one — written, by the way, by one of America’s more expensive management consultancies: “The [Who-Shall-Remain-Nameless] Foundation initiates and implements grants in consultation with key individuals and organizations in the sectors that it supports.”
After much thought, I decided that “initiates and implements” is simply an eight-syllable Latin translation of “makes.” And as for those “key individuals,” I can only fantasize, for the foundation’s sake, that one of them might someday be Carla Bruni.
(By the way, a reader has alerted us that a new coinage, “implementize,” is making the rounds of policy and management sewing-circles. I haven’t heard this one yet, and I find it hard to believe that things could possibly be getting this bad. But if you happen to see an instance of it, please send it along.)