What’s in a Name?

Authors

Lauren Pollak

Katherine Wakid

Companies often launch separate teams focused on growth, especially when they don’t have exploratory capabilities woven into the fabric of their cultures. Protected from short term demands, these teams can focus on opportunities beyond the core. So when one of our clients created such a team, we weren’t surprised. But this launch was unique: it included a contest to name the group. But, why was the name of the team so important?

Originally published by Harvard Business Review, in April 2011.

After examining other new business groups, we realized that the name of a group is quite revealing. It reflects the company’s frame on ambiguous growth problems. Inherent in the name is a point of view about the way the group will pursue new business efforts.

Three types of names predominate:

  • Skunkworks: names that imply something unappealing about a group
  • Special Ops: names that suggest elite forces tackling a problem on the battlefield
  • Artisans: names that highlight the artisanal nature of a group’s work

Skunkworks groups work in isolation
During World War II, Lockheed set up its original Skunk Works team, setting the model for teams that would later develop the U2 and the first stealth fighter. This structure, which segregates innovation teams from the core business, has proliferated in industries from online search to consumer packaged goods. The premise that underlies each is the same: innovation is about as welcome as a skunk at a garden party. While corporate leaders know they need growth, they also know that the exploration of new growth opportunities often acts as a distraction to the core business. Cordoning them off is the only way that disruptive projects can thrive.

Special Ops teams parachute in to solve high-stakes challenges
Nike’s former new business team described themselves as “an elite group of Navy Seals.” Like their U.S. military namesake, Nike’s team responded to specific issues: tackling new categories, entering new markets, fending off competitors, and capturing new consumers. Each project was a mission, with a problem to solve, a short time frame to solve it in, and a small but elite team of specialists to accomplish the objective. This “special operations” frame reflects the belief that growth is a battle that can be won or lost. While these groups may be limited in their impact to a finite set of projects, they are able to bring new tools, methods, and thinking to bear on some of the thorniest growth problems within an organization.

Teams of artisans refine the craft of new business creation
AT&T’s Foundry innovation centers are one part lab, one part test center, and one part collaboration facility. AT&T credits the Foundry with doubling the speed of its innovation efforts. Like the Foundry, groups that go by craft-based names stem from similar thinking about what it takes to create new businesses. These are teams of artisans who craft new ventures, concepts, and technologies. The groups’ names call to mind medieval workshops, and highlight both the art and science of their endeavors. This approach can help recruit the hybrid folks who are best suited to new business creation. At the same time, though, the message that they send to the organization about their work can signal too much preciousness about their efforts.

The best names are boring names
Executives charged with launching new business groups might be tempted to ask which of these naming systems is best. But it’s not as simple as choosing between good, better, and best. To find the right name, consider three elements:

  • The company’s openness to long-term growth opportunities
  • The message you need to send about the role of the group
  • The types of growth projects you want your team to work on

Perhaps less notable, but more useful, is a fourth type of name: the innocuous, boring, opaque option. It’s hard to discern exactly what groups do when they have names like Advanced Concepts or Enthusiast Services. But they tend to create less internal friction, and as a result, they succeed more easily. That’s because these names send the message that the group doesn’t compete, distract, or interfere with what other folks are doing. Change is often met with resistance. An innocuous name can be a powerful tool to help broker partnerships with the line businesses. It’s ultimately that partnership — where both groups succeed — that enables new business efforts to flourish.

 

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