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The Hidden Power of Team Names within Your Company

It's common for a company to spin up teams dedicated to solving a specific problem or driving innovation and creativity outside the normal production-oriented mindset of the rest of the organization. You might have just such a team operating at your company right now; I can assure you I've seen it several times in the last few years.

Integral to our culture, though, is the fact that the name we give to such teams has a lot of importance, both to the folks on that team and to the rest of the company. It affects how the team is perceived; as problem solvers, interlopers, experts, or enemies. Recently, the Harvard Business Review shed some light on the principal types of "innovation team" names, and how that name affects their perception. It's a fascinating look at the intersection of corporate jargon and human psychology, and is food for thought the next time you are structuring just such a team yourself.

There are three common varieties of names found out in the wild:

Skunkworks. A skunk work implies something vaguely unappealing about the group. It also suggests that the team works in isolation, away from their peers. It's based on Lockheed's Skunk Works which developed advanced weapon systems like the U2 and SR-71 spy planes. The implication here is often that innovation is a "distraction" from the core business, so such teams work away from the rest of their peers and don't easily integrate into any of the ongoing business practices.

Special Ops. This name suggests that an elite, expert team has been inserted into the organization to solve unique problems, like a bunch of Navy Seals. Typically, special ops teams are quite tactical, chartered to work on a single project or develop a limited set of tools. When they solve that problem, they are disbanded or move on to another elite problem; they don't dig in for the long haul to tackle an ongoing business problem.

Artisans. Artisans are just what the name implies; these folks "craft" new ventures, concepts, tools, and technologies. What they do is not science -- at least not entirely so -- but includes a hefty dose of art as well. And while there's a certain elegance about what an artisan team accomplishes, it can also sound overly "precious" to their peers, who will have a hard time taking this work seriously.

So how do you name your next tiger team -- I mean skunk work -- err, Innovation Delta Force?

You might want to avoid names that carry a lot of baggage. The HBR recommends using a boring, somewhat opaque title, like Advanced Concepts or Enthusiast Services -- it's hard to read too much into what they do or how they do it, and that's mostly the point.

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