Posted in practice on August 23, 2016 1:29 pm EDT

What Church Architects Aren’t Selling (But Probably Should Be)

An interview with a futurist and author, Rex Miller, on the challenge of delivering more than drawings, but true solutions that impact a client organization's future.

“Design is a thinking process. It’s a way of solving problems," according to Rex Miller of Mindshift.











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TAGS: architectural design, business, change agents, collaboration, team work,


By Cathy Hutchison

“Architecture is often about change management for an organization. The challenge is in educating clients.”

—Rex Miller, Futurist and Author, Mindshift

“Design is a thinking process. It’s a way of solving problems,” shares futurist Rex Miller, author of "The Millennium Matrix." And he continues, “The distinction is that design has gotten trapped into thinking about the artifact [the space], but it is really a mindset around solving a problem.”

Miller has been organizing groups through an organization called Mindshift that is focused on “solving wicked problems.” Mindshift has produced breakthrough insights in commercial real estate, employee engagement, K-12 education and, currently, wellness. Miller brings together a mix of design professionals, end users and other stakeholders around a challenging problem and they meet in summits across two years studying the outliers, then capturing the results and releasing the solutions in books that have become best-sellers.


“In the past,” Miller highlights, “design was about having specialized knowledge. Designers would come in and evaluate what a client had, then help them identify what they needed and wanted. Then the designer would go away into their magic chamber and the result was usually a rendering that they would return to present to the client and hopefully blow them away with the creativity.”

In leading Mindshift teams, Miller has discovered that the power of design thinking goes much further than creating a building, and he relays a story…

In the 1990s Jerry and Monique Sternin were sent by Save the Children to fight malnutrition in rural Vietnam. The Vietnamese foreign minister—weary of NGOs—gave the Sternins just six months to make a difference, which meant that there wasn’t time to take the usual approach in studying the problem.

The Sternins began looking for the “positive deviants.” The children who were thriving where others weren’t. They began their work meeting with the experts on feeding the children—groups of mothers in the villages. The Sternins asked if there were poor families whose children were bigger and healthier than typical children. They then began studying what those families were doing differently.

They found that the healthiest children were being fed smaller portions more frequently and that they were also being fed crab and shrimp found in the rice paddies—something that was often avoided by farmers because they were seen as "low class" foods. Also, the moms were ladling from the bottom of the soup making sure the children got the greens that had settled during cooking.

Sternin called these families “bright spots”—exceptions recognized by their peers as producing results above the norm with the same resources that others had.


“Part of the problem that all clients have in this time of massive change is that they can’t see the future. They can’t imagine what the new world will look like,” says Miller. “The people who can engage stakeholders to create pilots that are bridges to the future offer a service that can be far more powerful than the design of a building. CBRE’s LA headquarters provides a classic case study.” The [company's] challenge was that the culture that had made them successful would not continue to make them successful. They were a firm of super-star brokers with private offices filled with framed status photos and rows of silver shovels.

The president of the Southern region knew they had to move from a broker culture to a team culture. They wanted the different market segments to talk to each other. They wanted to tap into collective talent, energy and age. The strategy was to go “open plan.”

The brokers responded with expletives that wouldn’t be appropriate to repeat [here].

The architect began to take them on field trips outside of their industry to look at “bright spots.” They went to Google. They went to Bloomberg and saw Michael Bloomberg out in the middle of the bullpen. They visited Russell Financial and saw why people liked open plan.  continued >>