Ask project sponsors these questions before starting a capital project

One of the most daunting parts of any capital project planning process is having frank discussions with your sponsors about the project’s goals and challenges. Setting realistic expectations at the beginning of a project is crucial and mistakes in communication can end up costing the project staggering amounts of money.

EAB recently spoke to one private college working on the construction of a new athletics facility. Due to a lack of communication with the project sponsor, the $1 million set aside for contingencies was mistakenly funneled into upgrading interior finishings. By the time the facilities team realized where the money went, they had to scramble to raise enough money to cover actual contingencies.

Costly mistakes like this can be avoided by keeping the channels of communication open and the parameters of the project clear—defined sooner than later. The following four key areas and sample questions should be addressed in early conversations with your sponsors. You can set expectations upfront, better understand your sponsors’ goals for the project, and define a clear plan to work through any ambiguities or emergencies that arise. This simple breakdown will take you step by step through the topics you should cover and how to introduce them, ensuring that each party is fully informed throughout the capital project process.

Determine your sponsor’s experience with capital projects

First, assess what level of baseline knowledge your sponsor has and what their experiences were on previous capital projects. If the sponsor has little to no previous experience (as is often the case) you can more explicitly outline the capital project process—and ideally get ahead of mismatched expectations. If the sponsor does have experience, ask what they liked and disliked about past processes. Listen attentively and take their feedback into account to resolve any lingering frustrations.

Sample questions:

  • What has been your past experience, if any, with higher education capital projects?
  • If you have been previously involved with a capital project, which aspects did you appreciate most? Which were the most frustrating?

Explain the project’s scope

One of the most opaque parts of the capital project process is the relationship between project scope and cost. Sponsors will need a project manager’s help to articulate and prioritize their goals. Since they likely have little to no background with capital planning, it’s up to you to help them understand what can reasonably be done with the project’s budget and where that money would be best spent to accomplish their goals. Discuss this early in the process to help keep everyone’s expectations reasonable.

Sample questions:

  • What does your department/unit want to accomplish with this project?
  • Overall, what are your department/unit’s strategic priorities across the next five to ten years?
  • What are your top three priorities for this project? How would you rank them?

Assess stakeholder impact and lay the groundwork for community conversations

Regular communication with the project sponsor and stakeholders is critical to capital project success. Construction is a disruptive process and a few early conversations can help project managers identify which disruptions are inevitable and which can be avoided, improving your relationship with the campus community.

Your sponsor can be a great source of information on this subject. Ask which parts of the process may be most disruptive to stakeholders so you can make any necessary corrections before problems occur.

Sample questions:

  • Outside of the project site, what units and people do you expect to be impacted by construction/renovation sites?
  • Are there any sensitive occupants in the affected area or building? (E.g., a professor about to apply for tenure, a particularly delicate research lab, etc.)

Develop a communication plan

Project managers should establish primary contacts for different types of concerns. This helps ensure senior administrators are not stuck handling minor issues and that strategy-related questions from facilities can be answered quickly.

Sample questions:

  • Who should be the primary contact for the day-to-day non-emergency challenges of the project?
  • Who should be the sponsor-side contact for strategic questions about the project?
  • How often would you prefer to receive status updates?
  • How would you like us to update affected stakeholders?
  • Does this project require an info session or an open house?

5 tools to educate project sponsors on the reality of capital projects

For more communication strategies, download the Capital Project Planning Toolkit.

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Capital Project Planning Toolkit

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