Most people would agree that having a team name is one of the easiest ways to give everyone an identity to rally around. And they would start by mandating that all team names should be pulled from an overarching theme.
This is going to be a controversial opinion, but I think this is possibly the worst way to decide team names.
A common theme
A popular reason that people think using a common theme for all team names is a good idea is that they feel it’s inclusive.
But, it’s tough to find a genuinely inclusive theme. Even something innocuous like superheroes can make someone feel excluded if they haven’t grown up watching superhero cartoons.
So you decide to go with something
boring simple like colours.
Surely, no one can take offence in that, right?
Not so fast, my young padawan. You forgot to consider colour blind people.
The other reason that frequently comes up is that a common theme makes it easier for people to remember. For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that either colours or superheroes are an inclusive-enough theme for you, and you have two teams. But do the people in your organization know whether they need to talk to the Superman/Pink team or the WonderWoman/Blue team. More likely, they are saying
I need to talk to **Harry/Jane**. What is the name of the team? - Ah, who cares?
Or worse, they are mixing it up and talking to the wrong team and then getting redirected.
What if you have ten teams? No common theme can save you.
I think this tweet sums it up nicely
I worked in the company where teams were named after superheroes in Marvel universe. I missed the whole hype around superheros, so I had to learn it. Like there weren't enough other things to learn.
If you want to have team names with no connection to the product, I have a controversial recommendation for you. Let them come about from an inside joke, a conversation or a common identity that the team members can ascribe to.
An inside joke
Jelled teams are usually marked by a strong sense of identity
Having a team name based on an inside joke gives it a unique identity. It’s the uniqueness between the names and what that difference signifies that binds one identity to it.
It gives this feeling of being a part of an elite entity.
In his similarly titled post What’s in a team name?, Mike gives an excellent example of how hard it would be to rally around “the Vikings” if they were called the “The Minnesota NFL Team”.
Now, before you go all up in arms and say,
But, Ankur, having an inside joke for a team name doesn't solve for any of the problems you highlighted before
I kinda agree.
A team name based on an inside joke is not inclusive by nature to new people. But, every time a new member gets added, there is room for sharing stories around the team name and introducing that meaning to the new people. It can be a great ice-breaker.
Whether it’s easier to remember or not, that’s debatable. But it can certainly be more memorable, and memorable things get remembered faster. After all, would you be able to forget a name like The Applesauce Top Hat Brigade? Its a name I am not going to forget anytime soon.
Team names based on an inside joke are not only more fun, but have a few additional advantages.
As the old guard moves on, the team members change, and the inside joke becomes stale/politically incorrect; it makes it much easier to retire the team name and spin up a new one based on a new inside joke.
As the number of teams increases, each new team could think of their inside joke to rally around for their team name. Apart from a fun bonding excercise, it could be a great morale booster.
Merch/swag also feels cooler when its associated with an inside joke. Remember, it being a potential ice-breaker.
My favourite team name
One of my favourite team names was based on an inside joke. We were supposed to come up with a name for our team and forgot to submit it in time. In the slide deck for the company meeting, we were introduced as ???. This struck us as extremely funny and combined with other reasons, we decided to call our team 4Q.
You can see how this can be construed as offensive because it sounds like a cuss word. I rarely cuss, and this gave me a laugh every time I said Team 4Q (which was one of the reasons to go with it).
In any case, people had a valid concern. It sounds like a cuss word. Considering that cuss word are used regularly during internal conversations, its not so much of a problem.
But, it is a problem when communicating verbally with external parties.
There was a simple fix - to use the name Team 4 Questions when talking externally or to enunciate the name so that it doesn’t sound like a cuss word.
Changing the name in this scenario would be a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
It’s possible to have stories to share even if you are operating under a common theme. My current team is called kārearea, and it appealed to me (more than the other birds) because it’s fast and can bring down prey larger than itself.
But, I doubt new people will care about the reasoning behind choosing it as the team name. Sadly, its not a conversation starter when all the other teams are also named after NZ birds. It will always feel as if we randomly chose it because we had to choose something.
It’s safe to say that good team names are essential. But, it’s more valuable to make them memorable and have a unique individuality rather than force them into conformity.
Having said that, you should probably have some guidelines to weed out the truly offensive.