What’s in a name?

A project name is for life, so choose wisely

Have you ever worked on a project where you felt a little uncomfortable saying the name out loud? A little embarrassed? A little inclined to use air fairies when you said the mortifyingly grandiose codename out loud to your colleagues?

“I’m working on “Project Mordor”. You know, the project to replace the break room vending machines.”

I reckon we all have. Because people just don’t seem to be able to resist codenaming projects. And naming them without enough thought. Often they tell you more about the project or the instigators than they really meant to reveal. (Project Mordor = “I spent hours alone in my bedroom as a child. Finally I get to wield power over someone. This is revenge. Mwahahahah…”)

The worst example project name was one I had to refuse to use. In fact I had it changed (I could…I was the Head of PMO). Let me ask you what you would have done: Our European headquarters had an IT project to migrate some key IT services into Europe. This politically sensitive project to subsume what had been several local services, run by local people, into a single unit was named…

“Black Widow.”

Yes. The spider that kills and eats its mate after it…er…has what it needed out of him.

Anyone else spot the tiny little issue with this? The slightly-too-honest-for-its-own-good sentiment of this? Me too.

It was the year of the Olympics on our small island so I thought a more apt name would be Project Relay. You know, the cooperative handing over carefully with a common team spirit of the baton from one person to another. For the common good. For team. For country.

OK. I’ve gone too far now. But you can see the difference. “I’m working on Black Widow”, vs. “I’m working on Project Relay”. Which would you rather?

I think some people make the mistake of thinking the name of a project is immaterial. It’s an admin task. It may literally be the next name in your spreadsheet of names to call projects (like hurricane names). They don’t think hard enough about the politics around a project (there are always politics). They fail to appreciate that what you call a project sets the tone and expectations going forwards.

From what little I know of police operation naming conventions, it always strikes me as deeply understated the project names the police give their taskforces: Their hunt for a crazed serial killer may be called Operation Rich Tea Biscuit…

On the other hand some people think a project name is their opportunity to lead the double life they always wanted to as a spy…in the safe confines of the pork pie factory IT department they now work in.

I understand many projects need a project codename. If you do confidential client work you might be tempted to use a codename. But heavens to Betsy, pick one that people can remember. Listening to a corridor conversation between directors that goes, “Project Apple…I forget now is that <insert name of secret client #1> or <insert name of secret client #2>?” is really no way to keep your secret clients confidential.

If you can possibly get away with it, why not simply call projects what they are? If you’re upgrading to Windows 10, why not call your project the Windows 10 Upgrade project? It’s radical in its simplicity.

But if you do have to name your projects, here’s Ten Tips from my painful years of having to take people aside to sort out a name shame, or lock myself in a room to vent my real thoughts on a badly thought through project name:

1. Don’t be too gendered unless that’s the point. If you had to guess whether Project Probe, Project Flash, Project 4–4–1 were named by men or women, what would you say? Yes, all thought up by boys. Don’t alienate half your audience. Especially because when we don’t understand or like the reference, we have to ask. No-one wants to be set up to be mansplained to.

2. Related to point 1 above (as they usually come from men): codenames that imply obliteration, domination, penetration or violence in general are so 1980’s. Stop it. You’re alienating more than half your audience. And you don’t work for the MOD.

3. Use a project name that’s easy to spell. The Project Manager will be driven crazy with corrections, misfiling errors and failed searches otherwise.

4. Be very careful if you hide another meaning in your project name. In one company we called our new contact centre IVR system Project iSYS: formally called information Serve Yourself System. Informally amongst managers: I Sack Your Staff (PS we didn’t…they got to do more interesting things with their new free time).

5. Related to point 4 above. However you spell it, check what your project name sounds like out loud. We did Project iSYS a decade before saying it out loud would ring alarm bells…

6. Be very, very careful to check what your project name acronym spells, especially if it sounds wordy. The Critical Update Notification Tool project sounded like a mouthful until someone in Microsoft offered to use the acronym…(yes some people will work backwards to ensure this embarrassing Easter egg for you).

7. Try not to be too clever or high-brow. Do I need to tell you what Project Janus had become by the time it filtered down to the people actually doing the work?

8. Keep an accessible reference system so that the people who review your portfolio of projects know which project you’re talking about (which is why call-them-what-they-are project names work better).

9. Double check with other people that your new project name doesn’t have a sinister meaning you were oblivious to. I once had to veto the name Project Final Solution.

10. If you work internationally, check your project name isn’t offensive in another language. Project Gift sounds positive to us, but is poison (literally) in German. Probably changes the vibes of the project.

Remember, much like a child or a pet, what you name your project has to live with it throughout its life and beyond, so choose wisely. Ideally choose democratically — some of the best project names I’ve ever seen came from competition winners in the teams most affected by the change. This builds buy in and excitement from the start of your project. And every little bit of extra engagement helps.

Just be careful if you’re going to get people to vote for names. There’s only so many projects you can call Projecty McProjectface