Let me start by saying this is a purely anecdotal post. But what is lacks in statistical evidence it makes up for in my own eyewitness accounts of projects doomed to fail. I’m sure you’ll have seen this too.
Time and time again I’ve seen institutions running projects that will significanly affect their day-to-day business, but they clearly haven’t thought about what to call them. They’ve invested in governance processes, supporting tools, getting the right people involved, but not the name of the project.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
Juliet knew nothing about project management. If she’d been better at planning she wouldn’t have been so star-crossed.
The name of the project is the thing that’s most readily communicated to the project team and stakeholders. It’s the daily reminder of the work that they’re doing and the benefits that they’re expecting. And yet the name we give a project typically detracts from its core values, with these examples as the most typical culprits:
The new technology
Why oh why have you called this project the “Social Media Marketing project”? Or the “CMS upgrade”? Or the “Intranet replacement”? What useful information could that possibly convey?
- Does everyone involved in the project – from the people who’ll use the system to those who have to approve its budget – actually understand what that technology’s supposed to do? Does it really give all the stakeholders a good idea of project scope?
- Why are you upgrading? Surely it’s not just so that you can say you’ve the latest version running… or is your organisation full of Apple fanbois? You upgrade because you’re missing key functionality, or because the existing system is underperforming, so at the very least call it a content strategy project which has an upgrade component to it.
- And if you’re replacing a system, you’re actually compounding those two issues: do people understand what you’re getting rid of and why, and aren’t you replacing it with something that does a lot more? So it’s not a replacement, it’s a new strategic platform which enables the business to function more effectively. You’re not just throwing a wad of cash at a technology supplier in order to end up with exactly what you had before.
Naming a project after the technology is missing the whole point about what technology is. It’s an enabler, not an end solution. If your organisation thinks that by updating its technology it will solve its problems, you know that you’ll never meet your business goals.
The website redesign
I’m at a loss as to know where to begin with website redesign projects. As with new technology projects, the redesign isn’t an end in itself unless it’s some pure vanity project. The redesign is about improving how your audience achieves its tasks and that usually necessitates people who create content finding new ways to manage it, as well as identification of business objectives, target markets, persona, user experience testing, information architecture and so forth.
But calling a project a website redesign masks an endemic issue. It sets the expectation that once the project is complete, they’ll be no more work to do. Website redesign isn’t a project. It doesn’t have a start and an end. It’s a process of continuous improvement where your web team analyses audience interactions, responds to them and adjusts the website to improve how your organisation communicates with its customers online. If you turn it into a project, you’re effectively saying that you’re not going to fix what you know to be wrong until the project goes live, and that when it goes live you just need to sit back and measure the benefits. That approach is anathema to everything the web stands for: innovation, engagement, simplicity.
Clearly there will always be website projects that need to be run as projects, not least because corporate governance requires it. But they’re not redesigns. They’re projects to improve user experience, or to update a corporate brand, or to plan out a content strategy. Redesigns are fails before you even pass Go.
The acronym or buzzword
Some project management offices think they’re cool. That’s the only explanation that I can find for organisations that give their projects codenames or buzzwords or acronyms.
And guess what: project management offices aren’t cool.
I’ve worked with at least three organisations that called a project Prism. What for? None of them were about optics. It’s just someone thought it was a good idea to call them something cryptic. I’m pretty sure one was an intranet, another was a finance system but I really can’t remember what the third was… document management, perhaps?
The only thing that I can commend about those projects is that they didn’t fally into one of the first two traps. But they didn’t address the issues either. What on earth is project Prism, or project Orange or project Stan all about? Is it something that’s deliberately meant to exclude the majority of employees? Because that’s what it looks like, and it’s hardly going to get stakeholder buy-in if that’s the case.
Buzzword projects are doomed because they isolate the people working on them from the rest of the organisation and – worse still – they give the impression that actually the people working on them don’t really know what the project is about. I’ve seen many a buzzword project (though not the prism ones) being strategic projects where the organisation felt it had to do something, but it wasn’t exactly clear what that something was, and didn’t want other people to know about it until they’d figured that out so they could deliver the right message.
But they’d already delivered the wrong message. That no matter how competent the project team, they simply didn’t have a clue.
Choosing the right name
So if you can’t name the project after its core technology and you can’t call it a redesign and you can’t call it something you thought was cool, what can you call it?
Call it something relevant.
I realise that’s a boring answer, but you know what, every project you ever work should have a business objective. Call it the project content strategy improvement or expenses streamlining or improving our brand reach.
The name of your project should make transparent to all the stakeholders why you’re doing the project in the first place and keep the team focussed on what it is that they’re meant to achieve. Just because developers have done their bit doesn’t mean that the project will be a success.
So if your project is failing and you’re looking for a quick turnaround that might improve it, try renaming it according to where the team needs to focus. You might just avoid tragedy and a plague o’ both your houses.