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The WHO recently renamed the virus which had initially been referred to as Novel Coronavirus to COVID-19. While this new name is easier to pronounce and is more specific (Coronavirus being a family of viruses), it is no more informative than its former name. This is surprising given that lethal pathogens from the past few decades had been given much more descriptive names including:

  • SARS – Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. No confusion about what that disease is all about!
  • AIDS – Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Ditto.
  • Ebola – Refers to the geographic region where the disease was first identified
  • Legionnaires – First identified by an outbreak in Philadelphia at a convention of the American Legion

So what does this have to do with projects or project management?

In most of the companies I’ve worked with or for, I’ve very rarely seen project sponsors exploit the power of effective project names. This is especially true of technology-focused projects. “Upgrade XYZ” is just one of the common yet uninformative names I’ve seen. I accept that for confidential projects, code names might be warranted but these are usually a very small percentage of most organizations’ enterprise project portfolios.

A project name is that first impression which you’ll never get a second chance to make. It is the elevator pitch for your elevator pitch about the project.

It is the difference between calling someone a janitor or a health & safety custodian. It is why many companies use the term “QA” rather than “QC” to refer to their testing staff. And, it is that first opportunity we have as leaders to help our team members find the purpose in the work they are doing. And as Daniel Pink has taught us, Purpose is one of the three key ingredients to unleash intrinsic motivation.

So the next time you are assigned to lead a project which has an uninspiring name, use your powers of influence and persuasion to convince the sponsor to change it to something which better describes the purpose behind the project. Come up with a name that captures WHY we are investing in the project rather than WHAT or HOW we are going to deliver it.

Agent Smith, The Matrix Reloaded – “Without purpose, we would not exist. It is purpose that created us. Purpose that connects us. Purpose that pulls us. That guides us. That drives us. It is purpose that defines us.

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