Five Simple Rules for Project Names, plus Four Sample Lists

A recent post by Jeff Atwood about project names brought back memories of a previous employer, and the project naming convention we set up in our PMO. At this company, the IT group spawned maybe 30 to 50 chunks of work we would call “projects” – at least two calendar weeks in duration (anything smaller than that was just a programming request, and given a control number).

Like any good PMO, we generated charters, mission statements, requirements, process maps, status reports – many deliverables. These projects can go on for weeks (if not months), and often become part of the vocabulary of the organization (are you going to finish “Falcon” in time for the requirements phase of “Hawk”?)

I got introduced to “code names” in the business world when I was with a corporate strategy group in the pharmaceutical industry. As a public company, you couldn’t risk information about potential business partners getting out prematurely, so all presentations were loaded with mysterious references to the product families and market positions of Piccolo, Harp, and Drum. It sounded fun, so I picked up the habit for my next PMO.

At the end of the year, a key task for the PMO was to come up with a list of names for projects in the following year. We changed the theme of the lists to get a little variety, and also to reinforce the need for continual change. Of course, technical people can have a vicious wit, and any effort – no matter how worthy – can be torpedoed if the project name has any sort of negative connotation (who wants wants to work for Project Sloth?). So over time, we developed a short list of guidelines for project names:

  1. Single Words Only: Some file systems don’t like files names with spaces in them. If the names could later get applied to servers, folders or other objects in a directory, spaces might give you trouble there, too.
  2. Not Too Long, Not To Short: A decent name should have more than 5 letters, less than 10.
  3. Three Syllables or Less: Need to be able to say it quickly – it’s shorthand, remember?
  4. Avoid Easy Jokes: If a marginally cynical person could see something crude, childish, or even mildly offputting in a name – just skip it. The instant the project gets into the slightest trouble, the jokes will start.
  5. Use Names in Moderation: if your PMO generates over a hundred projects in a single year, skip the names and just go with a simple numbering system. Referring to Project 8053 is just as good of a shorthand as Project Condor. Consider using names for groups of projects (programs?).

Here are some examples of good project names; note my favorite topic, Music. I always liked to be part of any project called Drum – not sure why, just sounds cool …

Music

ACCORDION, BAGPIPE, BANJO, BASS, BELL, CELLO, CHANTER, CLARINET, CORNET, CYMBAL, DRONE, DRUM, DULCIMER, FIDDLE, FIFE, FLUTE, GUITAR, HARP, MANDOLIN, OBOE, PIANO, PICCOLO, RECORDER, SNARE, TIMPANI, TRUMPET, TUBA, VIOLA, VIOLIN

Birds

ACCENTOR, AVOCET, BECARD, BLACKBIRD, BLUEBIRD, BOBOLINK, BRAMBLING, BUNTING, CARDINAL, CATBIRD, CHUKAR, CONDOR, CORMORANT, DOVE, DUNLIN, EAGLE, EIDER, FALCON, FINCH, FLAMINGO, FLICKER, FULMAR, GANNET, GOLDFINCH, GOSHAWK, GRACKLE, GREBE, GROSBEAK, GULL, HARRIER, HAWK, HERON, JAEGER, KESTREL, KINGBIRD, KINGFISHER, KINGLET, LONGSPUR, MAGPIE, MALLARD, MARTIN, MERGANSER, MURRE, NIGHTJAR, ORIOLE, PARAKEET, PARROT, PINTAIL, PIPIT, PLOVER, QUAIL, RAIL, RAPTOR, RAVEN, REDSTART, ROADRUNNER, ROBIN, SANDPIPER, SHRIKE, SPARROW, STARLING, STORK, SWAN, SWIFT, TANAGER, THRUSH, TOUCAN, VERDIN, VIREO, VULTURE, WAGTAIL, WARBLER, WAXWING, WEAVER, WOODSTAR, WREN

Fish

AHI, ALBACORE, AMBERJACK, ANGLER, ARANA, BARRACUDA, BERGALL, BLUEBACK, BLUEGILL, BLUEMARLIN, BLUERUNNER, BONITO, BREAM, BRILL, CAPELAN, CARP, CAVALLA CHARR, CINOSA, COHO, CONGER, CORBINA, CREVALLA, DOLPHIN, DORADO, EEL, ESPADON, EXOCET, FORELLE, GALLINETA, GOLDEYE, GRENADIER, HADDOCK, HAKE, HALIBUT, HAMMERHEAD, KALMAR, LEMONSOLE, LONGFIN, MACHETE, MANTA, MERLANO, MINNOW, MORAY, MURENE, OYSTER, PALERO, PALOMETA, PASSERA, PERCH, PERLON PERSICO, PETRALE, PICKEREL, PIKE, PILCHARD, PINBASS, POMPANO, QUILLBACK, ROCKFISH, RUMBLEFISH, SABLEFISH, SALMON, SANDDAB, SEABASS, SEAHORSE, SEAROBIN, SHARK, SILVERSIDE, SKATE, SKIPJACK, STRIPER, SUNDIAL, SWORDFISH, TARPON, TIBURONE, TIGERSHARK, TONG, TORO, TRIGGERFISH, TROUT, TUNA, WALLEYE, YELLOWFIN

Islands

ALLEN, ARCH, ARROWHEAD, AUDUBON, AUGUSTINE, BAKER, BALLAST, BANKS, BARTLETT, BARTON, BATTLESHIP, BAYONET, BLOCK, BLYTHE, BOCK, BRANT, BREWSTER, BRIGGS, BROOKS, BUFFALO, BURNHAM, BURRIS, CALYPSO, CAMPBELL, CANARY, CARROLL, CARSON, CASCADE, CASTLE, CATHEDRAL, CEDAR, CHANNEL, CHAPMAN, CHESHIRE, CHIMNEY, CLEVELAND, CORONADO, CRICKET, CYPRESS, DEARBORN, DIAMOND, DUCHESS, ELK, EMERSON, ESKIMO, FENIMORE, FLATTOP, FORBES, FROST, GARDEN, GOULD, GOVERNOR, GRAND, GRANITE, GRAY, GREENWICH, GRIFFITH, HAMILTON, HARBOR, HAYSTACK, HICKORY, HUNTER, HYDRA, ICEPLANT, INTERLAKE, IROQUOIS, JORDAN, KELLOGG, KETTLE, KIMBALL, KIRIEN, LANGLEY, LARKIN, LASALLE, LIMESTONE, LINCOLN, LITTLEFIELD, LIVINGSTON, MAPLE, MARINE, MASON, MILLIKEN, MITCHELL, MONUMENT, MORSE, NAVY, NESBITT, ONARI, OREGON, ORION, ORMED, PALMYRA, PHELPS, PINNACLE, PORTAGE, POWELL, RAINBOW, RAMSEY, ROSSITER, SAIL, SAWYER, SCOUT, SENTRY, SIGNAL, SLATE, SPAR, SPINNAKER, SUGARLOAF, SYRACUSE, TAHOE, TALBOT, TAYLOR, TEEL, TERRACE, THATCH, THORNE, TIKI, TILDEN, TOGARI, TONGA, TORRY, TRAVERSE, TREASURE, VENTURA, WASHBURN, WHALEN, WILLOW, WINDMILL, WINONA, WOLCOTT, YORK

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James MacLennan

... is the Managing Partner at Maker Turtle LLC, a digital consultancy focused on creating value in ways that align with your strategy and drive engagement with employees, customers, and stakeholders. He is an active creator, providing thought leadership through on-line & print publications, and public speaking / keynotes.