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  • Writer's pictureBraden Swab

7 Tips to Help You Decide What to Build

Updated: Feb 17, 2022

If you’re considering a construction project, chances are you already have some idea of what you want to build. Perhaps the idea came from someone on your leadership team, a board member, or someone else in your organization. But, it’s all too easy to jump right to “what’s the next step?”.

As we’ve seen in previous posts, it’s crucial that you follow a good, and thorough, decision-making process before investing in a capital project. You need to take stock of your values and your “Why?” before deciding what (or even whether or not) to build. You also need to asses your current facilities to figure out your “point A”.

Next is defining your destination, or your “point B”. For non-profits, I often refer to this your “dream” or “vision”. The point isn’t to trivialize or romanticize it by using these terms. To me, it’s a way to connect the positive emotions behind your objectives with a very pragmatic process. Your project isn’t profit-driven. It’s impact-driven. And the desire to see impact is probably one of the biggest reasons you’re doing what you do!

So…you may already have a vision in your head. It may be fuzzy now, but it will become clearer over time. But first things first: here are some tips to ensure that the direction you start with is the right one:

1. Don’t automatically go with your first idea

Maybe you saw this one coming. It seems obvious, but it’s actually surprisingly common to see organizations skip any kind of brainstorming or alternatives analysis. Just because an idea was first, doesn’t mean it’s best. Ask yourself: What would life be like if we didn’t build that? What else might address our most imminent needs? What would be of most value to our organization now? In 5 years? 10 years?

(Note: your most imminent needs may not necessarily be the most strategic focus of a construction project, but a good question to consider nonetheless.)

2. Make sure you know who the key stakeholders are

This is a somewhat jargon-y term out of project management, but its really important to make sure you’re getting feedback from the right people, or groups of people, early on in the process. This could be an article unto itself, but here are some quick suggestions:

  • Identify the groups of people who will be most affected by your project, both from a user perspective and from an operational perspective

  • Think about how each group is represented in your planning process. Who should have direct input? Who merely needs to stay informed? Consider creating a rudimentary impact-influence matrix and/or a stakeholder engagement assessment matrix

  • Form a planning committee that includes representatives from groups you believe should have direct influence on the project. Try to make this committee as diverse as possible. Make sure you include at least one or two people who are new to your organization, not just “veterans”, to reduce the risk of falling into the “this is how we’ve always done things” trap.

3. Use your strategic plan, but don’t let it lock you in

If don’t have a strategic plan, now is a good time to get started on one. If you do, now is the time to take it into consideration. It is important that your project aligns with organizational goals and objectives, whether functional, economic, time-related, etc.

However, you may find that your strategic plan is a bit off-target, especially if it’s been a while since you’ve revisited it. That’s ok – planning is an iterative activity, and being adaptive is a good quality (as our recent global circumstances have shown).

4. Facilitate some guided brainstorming

Come up with different idea if what the focus of your capital project should be with your committee or team. Some good brainstorming activities include:

  • Brain-writing

  • Round-robin

  • Remember the future (maybe my favourite)

  • Step-ladder

  • Six thinking hats

  • Rapid ideation

  • Mind-mapping

  • Reverse brainstorming

5. Evaluate Value vs. Complexity

This is a product management/design approach that can be translated to construction projects. Here, you are not prioritizing features as you would with product design. Instead, the goal is to plot each of your selected ideas on a value vs complexity grid. More complex ideas typically require larger budgets and carry greater risk of cost overruns and unfulfilled objectives. Complexity may be necessary, but the value needs to be there to make it worth it. A value-complexity matrix can help you visualize this relationship.

(Note: You are not putting together a business case for your project yet, just doing a high-level assessment of potential for value.)

6. Consider revenue generation & combining functions

Think about how a new facility or renovation might contribute positively to your economic sustainability over the long-term. Is there an opportunity to generate revenue (for example, by making your facilities more attractive to rental groups) without compromising your needs or values? Could space functionality be combined to accommodate multiple uses? If you’re feeling ambitious, try running through SCAMPER with your ideas (again, this is a product design method, so it will take some creativity to adapt it to this situation).

7. Get help from a third-party

It is often a good idea to bring in a third-party to help facilitate your planning activities, lend their experience to your process, and provide an objective perspective to your project. For churches, this may be other pastors or regional ministers. For camps, this may be another camp director or board member. For affordable housing, this may be another Executive Director, board member, or CMHC representative.

Of course, most of these people are very busy and not all can provide the right expertise. In many circumstances, it may make sense to hire a consultant to help you plan your project. While this an upfront expense, good consultants often “pay for themselves” by saving you money, time, and stress.

If you think your project could benefit from this kind of expertise, please check out the Tree Steam Services page or Contact Me to learn more!


Braden Swab is the founder and sole operator of Tree Stream Consulting. After more than seven years helping international charities design and plan their facilities with a Canadian charity called Engineering Ministries International (EMI), Braden is using what he learned to help non-profits in North America. He is a passionate problem-solver, advocate, and story-teller.

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