AIA’s Repositioning Initiative

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A Promise of Essential Transformation

Seldom in my experience has the profession faced so many challenges. Perhaps as a consequence of a desperate economy, the value of design is increasingly marginalized as evidenced by the plethora of unfunded design competitions, unreasonable contract conditions, poor procurement practices, and the abundance of public agency RFP’s based on price. Without question, desperate times produce poor business practices that frustrate the profession and negatively impact the design and delivery of the nation’s built environment. Unfortunately, even as economies improve, poor practices seldom go away. Instead, they become institutionalized as the new normal.

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Paul W. Welch, Jr., Hon. AIA

On the other hand, we cannot blame everything on the economy. The decline in licensing and the increasing migration of new architectural graduates to other professions were serious concerns long before the media highlighted the high unemployment of architects, the low earnings of emerging professionals, and the length of time necessary for licensure. Regrettably, we failed to appreciate the seriousness, the complexity, and the immediacy of these challenges. That is until the December 2012 National AIA Board of Directors’ meeting, when board members received a candid report from consultants that framed both challenges facing the profession and several organizational disconnects that needed to be addressed if the AIA wished to remain relevant to the profession. While the consultant’ s findings and recommendations were not entirely a surprise, they stressed the need for the organization to act immediately, act strategically, and perhaps most importantly, be wide-ranging and courageous in constructing an agenda for transformational change; no longer would tweaking and rearranging the deck chairs suffice.

Over the last year, the AIA’s Repositioning Initiative has focused on “rebooting the organization.” Retooling the culture of any organization is a challenge; however, the problem is much harder when the organization is 157 years old, nurtures a culture largely dependent on incremental planning and budgeting, and resources member services over a wide variety of interests, priorities, and opinions. Yet, the Institute appears to be rising to the challenge to shake off old ways and embark on a new course of action. Repositioning activities to date include task force and committee work on improving operational and infrastructure alignment, changes in governance processes that enable nimble and timely decision-making, and strategic development of external messages designed to enhance the public/client appreciation of architects, architecture, and design.

The Repositioning Initiative has captured the enthusiasm of the leadership and the members, but impatience with the process is growing. However, it took AIA a long time to get in this position and it’s going to take a while to effectively reorganize. Besides, repositioning is an attitude, not a one-time effort. To be effective, repositioning dictates organizational behavior that responds to member priorities that if aggressively and wholeheartedly pursued will result in consequential change. To that end, we need to be particularly careful that our impatience does not tempt us to confine our efforts to easy wins. Instead, we should remain focused on real substantive change: change that materially influences the environment in which architects provide professional services; change that improves the member/value equation; and change that enhances the prosperity of the profession while advancing the human condition.

Yes, change of this magnitude is scary. In the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein,

“…the most important and effective change, a change in our own attitude, hardly ever occurs to us, and the resolution to take such a step is very difficult….”

Although the road the AIA has embarked on won’t be easy, the case for change is obvious and compelling. The time to act is now.

What are your thoughts and suggestions? The next several posts will be devoted to the subject of transformational change, including some suggested focus areas. I look forward to hearing from you.

For more information regarding the AIA’s repositioning initiative, click here.

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Paul W. Welch Jr., Hon. AIA

Paul W. Welch Jr., Hon. AIA and Executive Vice President of the AIA California Council (AIACC), is the former interim Executive Vice President and CEO of the American Institute of Architects in Washington, D.C.

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  1. avatar
    Paul W. Welch

    Thank you all for your comments and perspectives regarding the Repositioning Initiative. The journey towards meaningful change is not going to be easy, and we have only just begun. Like any large organization AIA has an inherent propensity to tweak programs and/or activities here and there, while serious and important retooling remains wanting. Perhaps this is a consequence of our ever changing volunteer leadership structure, or maybe from AIA responding to the expansive needs of a diverse membership. Nonetheless, we can respond to these challenges if we remain directed and focused on the needs of our members and the communities we serve.
    The challenge facing emerging professionals is indeed very complex. It is much more than simply engaging young people in leadership opportunities. Instead, in order to transform the culture of AIA to attract and nurture future generations of architects, the opinions, experiences and perspectives of emerging professionals should be viewed as a horizontal influence that permeates everything we do. Conversely, to be effective in this regard we must be prepared to listen, and willing to embrace a future that is likely to be unfamiliar to many. I too do not want to see this profession hemorrhaging young professionals. Let’s work together to do what we can to prevent this.”
    Thanks again for your comments. I look forward to our ongoing conversation regarding the Repositioning Initiative.
    Paul

  2. avatar
    Michael F. Malinowski AIA

    Paul
    Thank you for this very thoughtful, concise and clear explanation of the tumultuous events that have been occurring throughout our profession and the AIA over the last two years (a period coinciding with my term on the national board of directors). I concur with your assessment of the difficulties in making a change of the magnitude that is required; but I am also excited about the specific measures that are now starting to gel such as the board restructuring. I’m particularly excited about an emerging deep consideration of the need to support the prosperity of the firms which are the actual source of architectural services. With a quarter of the 17,600 firms in the US made up of a single person; and half with less than five people; that turf is varied and broad. This is my view is the area where we can now begin our focus on specific measures – the drawing tools we use, the legal, accounting and management services we rely on, and more – to help us move toward prosperity for members, emerging members, and the profession as a whole.

  3. avatar
    Ashley Miller, AIA, IIDA, LEED AP

    Change or die. Our profession is on a slippery slope toward being irrelevant. Every year we loose more of our services to contractors, construction managers and brokerage houses.

    In the Bay Area contractors have CAD departments that commonly assemble and control BIM models. Construction managers have taken the Construction Observation portion of the architects services and brokerage houses are doing Programming and Space Planning for commercial clients. The services left to us are Design and Construction Documents and half the Construction Documents are generated offshore.

    The repositioning Initiative is critical to our very existence. We are behind the curve by a good six years. Consequential change aggressively pursued is our only option.

  4. avatar
    Myrle McLernon A.I.A.

    Repositioning is essential to the very definition of Architecture.

    The devaluation of design is a symptom of a perceived lack of value to our services.

    The average client needs more for less. it is up to us to emphasize the value of our services over the fee structure. Once our clients have regained a clear understanding of the value of an Architect, we once again become part of the development process. Without the awareness of our perceived value, the profession will continue to stagnate.

  5. avatar
    Gray Dougherty

    I appreciate the approach that the AIA is taking to Repositioning. I’m not yet convinced, however, that this will stop the profession from hemorrhaging talented young people. The amount of red tape involved in practice, the abundance of clients who do not value “design” in the way that we were taught, and the lack of comparable pay are problems that I’m not yet sure the AIA can solve. I am looking forward to being surprised.

  6. avatar
    Shannon Calder

    Thanks, Ian. We’d love to hear some thoughts from the Summit upon your return. Keep us posted.

  7. avatar
    Ian Merker

    I’m looking forward to hearing the results of an Emerging Professionals summit to be held this weekend. Thought leaders from across the profession will envision their role as architects 20 years from now. I imagine we’ll be embracing many alternative paths and elevated levels of collaboration. As long as we reinforce our value to society as architects, we can take many paths and remain a great influence on the built environment.

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