Would You Step on Board an IT Project Named Titanic?

Nick Benschop, Arno L.P. Nuijten, Mark Keil, Kristinka Wilmink, and Harry R. Commandeur share a humorous finding uncovered while researching their paper, “The Effect of Project Names on Escalation of Commitment in Information Systems Projects,” which was recently published in Project Management Journal.

As a backstory of our research paper, we would like to share an anecdote of our research that did not make it to the final paper. The anecdote illustrates the joy of doing this research. It shows that IT project names sometimes exhibit an unexpected twist and can have a completely different effect than anticipated. One project name even surprised us as researchers on this topic.

In our study, we test the effects of positive vs. negative project names on the willingness to continue a troubled IT project. To decide which specific project names to use in our study, we conducted a pilot test with a number of different names. In this pilot test we assessed whether a project name that was intended to be negative (positive) would indeed be perceived as such by the respondents. One negative project name that we believed to be promising was ‘Titanic.’ However, the pilot test results for the ‘Titanic’ project name confused us since we found wildly varying responses to the name, including very positive ones.

In later discussions with students and practitioners, we further investigated this curious finding and asked our respondents which specific positive and negative thoughts or images (i.e. the affect pool) the project name evoked. Our a priori expectation was that no one would want to be on-board with an IT project named Titanic, referencing the ship that sunk spectacularly. Indeed, we found that many of our respondents had the same negative affective reaction to the project named Titanic. They described that the project name evoked thoughts or images such as: ‘failing spectacularly’, ‘much too big’, ‘blind to upcoming threats’, ‘panic’, ‘disaster’, ‘people died’, ‘disaster still remembered after a century’ and ‘still down at the bottom after a century.’

To our surprise, there also was a large group of people who instead had a very positive affective reaction to the project name. These respondents associated the name ‘Titanic’ with very different things, including: ‘beautiful,’ ‘piece of art,’ ‘love story,’ ‘Leonardo di Caprio,’ ‘Kate Winslet,’ ‘warmest ties between people,’ ‘helping each other,’ ‘a cherished memory to my mother with whom I watched this movie in the cinema twice.’

This example shows that project names can have unanticipated effects and that they can even surprise us as researchers. Nevertheless, we would not necessarily advise you to award your next ambitious IT-project with the project name ‘Titanic.’ Unless your project is populated with award-winning movie stars, of course.

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Nick Benschop, Arno L.P. Nuijten, Mark Keil, Kristinka Wilmink, and Harry R. Commandeur

Nick Benschop (pictured) is a researcher and teacher at the Erasmus School of Accounting and Assurance, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands. His research interests are in the areas of decision-making, psychological biases, language usage in IT projects, and project escalation.

Arno L. P. Nuijten is the academic director of the Expert Center on Behavioral Risk at the Erasmus School of Accounting and Assurance, Erasmus University Rotterdam. He is also a professor of information science at the Open University in the Netherlands. His research interests are in the areas of IT auditing, internal auditing and managerial decision-making on IT risks in general and IT projects in particular.

Mark Keil is a Regents’ Professor of the University System of Georgia and the John B. Zellars Professor of Computer Information Systems in the Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University. His research focuses on IT project management and includes work on preventing IT project escalation, identifying and managing IT project risks, and improving IT project status reporting.

Kristinka Wilmink is a business strategy manager at Accenture. On a part-time basis, she has also been acting as a junior researcher on behavioral decision-making at the Erasmus School of Accounting and Assurance.

Harry R. Commandeur is a professor of industrial economics and business economics and holds the F.J.D Goldschmeding Chair of Economics and Humanities at the Erasmus School of Economics, Erasmus University Rotterdam. His research focuses on the relationship among market structure, corporate strategy, and firm performance.

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