Does your Project Name 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.
Not every project has a name, but many do.
This becomes the most visible component of your project’s ‘brand identity’. And it also creates a handy label to give your team an immediate sense of 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.
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.
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.
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.
Space agencies seem to be particularly good at acronyms:
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’.
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.
Literature, movies, music, drama, art, and television provide a great source of names with culturally familiar associations. Be aware that if your project spans multiple cultures, this may be a problem. The recent fashion for one-word movie and book titles seems to help here.
Another approach is to use the name of someone famous. For example, use artists, composers, playwrights, architects, scientists, or engineers. Avoid politicians or the law of unintended alternative meanings will almost certainly catch you out.
Any large class of things will have names within the group that elicit different associations. Examples include: animals, cars, plants, geographical features, scientific disciplines, artists, authors, colours, flavours, musical terms, buildings etc
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.
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.
Google is your friend. It can help you unearth meanings of your candidate project name. The translate 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.
We’d love to hear your experience or advice. So please do contribute to the comments section below.
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.
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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