That’s a good name! Photo by Jannes Glas on Unsplash

Naming Is An Act of Creation

Names are the building blocks of everything we do.

Naming is a tool to help us think. Often, we use naming almost unconsciously, but it’s a powerful act and worth taking seriously. Some disciplines — writers, software engineers, branding experts — know that naming is an art and has consequences. In software, complicated names can indicate tangled concepts, which can indicate tangled code. In writing, the naming of a character can change their entire narrative arc (John Snow, anyone?).

There are only two hard things in Computer Science: cache invalidation and naming things.

Phil Karlton, Netscape

Naming is not usually thought of as a management tool, but it is. Naming can help a team coalesce around an idea, be part of building a culture (both positive and negative), and create both structure and momentum.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Naming As Creation

Before a thing is named, we have very little power to work with it. We don’t know where to place it, mentally. We can’t communicate it clearly. The great human power of working together in a group is muted. In a work setting, questions like “what are we really building?”, or, the famous “what problem are we trying to solve?” are calls for a name, a handle, something for our rational minds to grasp on to.

Thus was the Name of Ra taken from him and given to Isis, and she, the great Enchantress, cried aloud the Word of Power, and the poison obeyed, and Ra was healed by the might of his Name.

The idea of naming as creation goes as far back as we have literature. God names the world in Genesis. Adam names the animals. And the notion than when we have the true name of a thing we have power over it is woven into folklore and fantasy: The sun god RA turns away monsters by knowing their true names; Rumpelstiltskin is defeated when the miller’s daughter learns his true name; any number of fantasy stories have the idea of a true name at their center.

In the workplace, naming a concept, project, approach, team, suddenly makes it much more real. It allows a group of people to start seeing it, elaborating on it, challenging it. It’s hard to have a conversation about “that product idea we’re putting together”. It’s a lot easier to talk about “project Sunshine”, or “the Moonbeam project” — any label that takes an amorphous set of concepts and gives them an identity.

Naming provides a hook, off which we start to hang an entire web of meaning. And without meaning, we can’t work.

(I’ve been very influenced in this by the book Sapiens, which argues that the great Cognitive Revolution of about 70,000 years ago, during which humans started to migrate widely, was caused by the appearance of our ability to cooperate around things existing purely in the imagination — gods, nations, heaven).

A good time for a name — Photo by Julie Johnson on Unsplash

Timing a Name

I was chatting to a colleague recently and tossed the phrase “Startup Anti-Patterns” into the conversation. “Great name, he said. “Get the domain!”.

It is a great name — you can almost see the book cover — and, yes, I got the domain. But it’s too early. I can think of a few blog posts that’ll fit, and a bunch of people who might contribute, but I don’t know if the idea is strong enough to really hold a finished project.

We create through iteration, and in the early stages, we don’t know what we’re creating — it will tell us as it grows. If we name too early, we will force the shape of the thing we’re creating to fit the name, which can cause it to coalesce too early, cutting off its true growth.

I’ve chatted to Kim Scott about the work she went through to create the Radical Candor model. Almost all the power of that model is in the naming of th pieces of the model. It became powerful because she struggled with it, hard, rejecting, among other things “Brutal Honesty” which is almost right, but doesn’t get the essence of the idea (that we should challenge directly, but also with caring).

Once we begin to see that a useful concept is starting to emerge, we need to start the search for a name, iterating the name with the concept, until the two come together.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The Right Name

We tend to spend too much time on finding exactly the right name. I love Zappos as a name — nothing to do with shoes, or customer service, or anything, really. It has energy, and that’ll do. Some names are perfect: Dreamweaver, the 1990s web tool, came by the name by accident, and it stuck, describing the product beautifully (fun fact: I negotiated getting permission for the name from Gary Wright, he of the song).

Most names are fine — if they feel comfortable enough, and people use them, that’ll work. Purple was the code name for the first iPhone, and quickly ended up standing for both the secrecy and intense focus around that project.

But bad names are bad. Say you have a team that builds drivers, or plugins. It’s less challenging, more repetitive work than the rest of the team. Calling that team “the driver team” immediately confers the difference in status and desirability. And you need that team. Find a better name.

Human beings are tribal, will form competing groups instantly, and begin ascribing qualities to “the other team”. Remote groups, groups that are separated by floors, status or importance will start to use names that reflect those divisions, unless you make a conscious effort to make a better choice.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash best

Getting Too Attached to a Name

Names help us move forward, by providing a common hook, a symbol attached to a body of meaning.

We are uncovering better ways of developing

software by doing it and helping others do it.

The Agile Manifesto

They also get in the way. Names are tools, not an end in themselves, and they become barriers when they become encrusted, like the bottom of a boat that has sat too long without care, or overly powerful, entangled in rules and expectations. I have banged the table in frustration in a ridiculous (to me, anyway) conversation about the “definition of beta” (sorry, Sarah). I am ignorant about the details of Agile methodology, but greatly admire the original manifesto, and have found some of the strong disagreements I’ve witnessed over “what is Agile?” pretty disappointing. Then there’s Windows, poor Windows, a name agonizingly stretched far beyond anything it can cover (“Microsoft is embracing Android as the mobile version of Windows”).

And, of course, in the wider world these days, names make walls and ruin lives (who is an American, again?).

A conversation that becomes heated about whether “thing X” is in “category Y”, or “is really Z” is probably a conversation about turf and power — about who owns the name.

Photo by “My Life Through A Lens” on Unsplash

Naming is an Act of Creation.

Naming is a tool, and a powerful one. Naming allows us to bring to bear the true expertise of human beings — our ability to cooperate around concepts. Names are the building blocks of everything we do.

Whatever you are working on with other people needs a name. Without a name it will remain unshaped, and find a name you may not want.

Choose well!

(Interested in coaching? Drop me a line)

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Joe Dunn

Joe Dunn

614 Followers

Executive coach, working with execs and technical leaders in high growth companies in San Francisco. Ex Engineer, VP Eng from way back.