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Do You Know How to Craft the Perfect Project Name?

Do You Know How to Craft the Perfect Project Name?

Does your Project Name really matter?

After all, Juliet told Romeo that ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’. But we use names all the time. And sometimes the name we hear colors our interpretation, before we find out anything else about a person, a product, or a project. Project names do sometimes matter.

But naming projects is a tricky business, with more getting it wrong than right.

Your Project Name Creates a Brand Identity

Do You Know How to Craft the Perfect Project Name?
Craft the Perfect Project Name

Not every project has a name, but many do.

A good project name is a real asset. It:

  • becomes the most visible component of your project’s ‘brand identity’.
  • creates a quick way to refer to the project.
  • confers a measure of significance upon your project.
  • …and it also becomes a handy label that gives your team an immediate sense of team identity.

So, before you even start work on thinking of a name, consider what sort of impression you want your project’s brand identity to convey.

Hiding your Project’s Purpose

Some projects are secret. So the project name needs to hide, rather than reveal, its purpose. The UK Police service keeps a large list of names and whenever a new project or operation is launched, a name is assigned. This keeps the name from giving away the nature of a potentially sensitive project or operation. Consequently, British news has been full of Operation Bumblebee, Yewtree, Ore, Return, and Caprock.

In most projects, however, it is best to have a name that clearly links to the project and its intended outcomes. Your goal is one starting point for coming up with a name. Some project leaders see the responsibility to name the project as theirs alone, whilst others like to engage their team in a discussion or even a competition. However you want to approach it, here is some advice about what to do and what not to do.

What We Will Look at

In this article, we will look at:

Where to Find a Good Project Name

The dictionary is full of words, and some of them may well suit you. If you want to be more focused, you can always take an everyday word that seems to suit your project, and then use a thesaurus to find one that is less mundane, quotidian, banal, or commonplace. You get the idea…

Look for a word that has a similar meaning or associations with the goal of your project. This simple approach ensures that, when people hear your project’s name, it conjures up the right purpose in their minds.

You can do this at the surface level, naming your project after the primary benefits it should produce, or at a deeper level to reflect the values or cultural changes it will support.

Beyond this, here are the six places we will look:

  1. Acronyms
  2. Mythology and Classical Culture
  3. Modern culture
  4. Other large classes
  5. Humor
  6. If all else fails…

Acronyms

Space agencies seem to be particularly good at acronyms:

  • Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO)
  • Advanced Telescope for High ENergy Astrophysics (ATHENA)
  • CHaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite (CHEOPS)
  • Solar wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer (SMILE)
  • Fast Auroral Snapshot Explorer (FAST)
  • Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX)
  • Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX)
  • Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR)

But acronyms can get you into trouble if people don’t know what they stand for. They can easily make some wrong assumptions. If you are going to use acronyms, then try to make them spell out something appropriate. And beware of names that create unintended acronyms, like the short-lived ‘Social Housing Investment Trust’.

Mythology and Classical Culture

You can pick a name from mythology. This gives you a host of archetypes and associations.

But don’t be boring and stick solely to more familiar cultures like Ancient Greek or Roman. Take a look at http://www.godchecker.com.

You can find vibrant pantheons of gods and heroes in the cultures of India, China, Iceland, North, South, and Central America, and throughout Africa. In fact, every culture will have its own mythos and legend. just be careful to review the associations carefully, for risks of unintended offense.

Modern Culture

You can look to:

  • Literature (book names, characters, vessels, places)
  • Movies (titles, characters, organizations)
  • Music (composers, titles, instruments, performers, musical terms)
  • Drama (playwrights, characters, titles)
  • Art (artists, galleries, works)
  • Television (series, characters)
  • Technology (engineers, scientists components)
  • Brands (use with care)

for a great source of names with culturally familiar associations.

Be aware that if your project spans multiple cultures, this may cause a problem. The recent fashion for one-word movie and book titles seems to help here.

What else comes in large classes of different things?

Any large class of things will have names within the group that elicit different associations. Examples include: 

  • Animals
  • Cars
  • Plants and trees
  • Geographical features
  • Genstones and minerals
  • Places and buildings
  • Scientific disciplines
  • Colors and flavors

So, geographical or geological features can make good names. You could use rivers, mountains, minerals, volcanoes, or seas. So can plant, animal or bird names, although many have been taken already as product names.

Humor

Take care… Take great care. What’s funny to you may be unfunny or even offensive to someone else. Look what happened when the British Antarctic Survey asked the public to nominate and then vote on a name for its new boat…

Yup. The winning name was Boaty McBoatface.

A good example (to me) is the dry humor with which the late Iain M Banks names large vessels in his science fiction series of Culture novels. Names like:

  • Just Read The Instructions
    (one of four Culture ship names that Elon Musk has re-used for vessels in his own space program)
  • Congenital Optimist
  • Fate Amenable To Change
  • Lightly Seared On The Reality Grill

If all else fails…

Re-use a name for your project, based on an existing list of project names. What about those used by teams in the various versions of the TV series, The Apprentice? This program, by the way, frequently shows the struggle people have in coming up with names, and the mistakes they sometimes make, in choosing a name that is overly grandiose or pompous.

Take Care: What to Do and Avoid when Crafting your Project Name

Five things to Do when You Name your Project

  1. Check very carefully for unintended alternative meanings.
    The word Titanic may mean ‘big’, but the name ‘Project Titanic’ conjures other associations.
  2. Choose a name that is a little out of the ordinary. Therefore it is likely to have fewer alternative associations.
  3. Pick something intriguing if you want people to ask about it.
  4. Consider an emotive name that conjures up assumptions, feelings or emotions that are relevant.
  5. Use a randomly chosen name if your project is secret or confidential.

Five Things to Avoid when You Name your Project

  1. Avoid meaningless, unpronounceable acronyms. People will forget what the name is. So, when asked what the acronym stands for, they will say, lamely, ‘I don’t know’. Particularly avoid acronyms that accidentally spell out or suggest unwanted words.
  2. Don’t choose a name that is hard to pronounce in any language where the project might operate. If it is hard to pronounce, then people will avoid talking about it. Likewise, avoid hard-to-spell names.
  3. Especially avoid picking a name that has unwanted alternative meanings. This can be through double-meanings or in a second language.
  4. Reject names that suggest unreasonable or unattainable levels of achievement. Hyperbole often breeds cynicism.
  5. Never let your choice of name become divisive among your team, or alienate one or other of your stakeholder groups.

A Final Word of Caution

Google is your friend. It can help you unearth other meanings of your candidate project name. The translation feature can help you find out if your possible project name has an unfortunate meaning in another language your team or stakeholders use. And sites like Wikipedia can help you find the full stories behind mythical names. You may even turn up other instances of projects with the same name.

One example I came across was a highly ambitious project. It had been named after another highly ambitious project: Babel. The project manager was genuinely surprised when I pointed out the original Tower of Babel story. It was an example of hubris and the consequent failure to achieve what the builders intended. Needless to say, the project name was rapidly changed.

Crafting Your Project Name

Often Projects get their name during the Project Definition stage.

Part of Project Definition

You may be interested in our Project Manager’s Project Definition Kit – an innovative course and resource kit, so you can take a jumble of ideas, needs, and requests and turn it into a well-defined project.

During Your Project Kick-off

A great time to get your team engaged in coming up with a name for your project is during your project kick-off meeting. You may like our article: How to Make Your Next Kick-off Meeting a Huge Success.

Do you have any good tips or Amusing Stories?

We’d love to hear your experience or advice. So please do contribute to the comments section below.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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