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A Response to My Rethinking REThinkFuture Post

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I haven’t forgotten about the massive series on REThink Future I’m working on. Hell, at this rate, I should look for a publisher as it’s trending north of 15K words in multiple parts. In any event, Nicole-Anne Boyer, the Managing Director of Adaptive Edge — the company working with NAR on REThink Future — was kind enough to respond to various points in my first post about REThink. With her permission, I reproduce the relevant parts after the jump.

I really appreciate Nicole-Anne taking the time to continue the dialogue, because this is an important discussion for the industry to have.

Letter from Nicole-Anne Boyer, With My Comments and Responses

[ED: This letter has been edited for space, clarity, and to preserve confidential information.]

Dear Rob, First off,  thank you so much for drawing people’s attention to the REthink NAR strategy process.  We’re thrilled that you’re engaged in this important dialogue on the future of the real estate industry.   Our team has been following your blog from the beginning, and your point of view and thinking is highly valued. Let me address some of your points below about the process, methodology and content.

As Charles mentioned,  I’m the main writer — more like “synthesizer” — of the scenario work which is the product of a large collaborative effort, including many inputs inside and outside the industry (yes, including your blog 🙂  I’m also managing director of Adaptive Edge, the firm hired to design and facilitate the REthink process.  As Charles clarified, he is our lead facilitator.  We co-lead the project along with an amazing team inside and outside the NAR.  I’m not visible right now because I’m on maternity leave, working on my own personal growth strategy!  But will be back in the fall.

Organizing the discussion at multiple levels – individual, small group, + collective 

Small table conversations greatly increase the chances for alternative ideas and quieter voices to emerge compared to a large group conversation.   In most cases, smaller groups temper the dominating voice dilemma, which you describe well.   Even so, we were concerned about this common dynamic. And we know that group dynamics can dilute novel thinking (peer pressure, convergence to the mean, and so forth) and thus erode the conditions for collective intelligence to emerge.  So to overcome this problem, we have people individually inputting their ideas directly into a technology platform on the most critical questions.  In short, to get the most rigorous and robust result, we’re blending inputs at  multiple levels — individual, small groups, large groups — which will be aggregated into an analysis of a very large group, approx. 20,000 people at present.

I understand where Adaptive Edge is coming from, and I can respect the decision. They are professionals at this, after all. I still believe, however, that the single biggest impact REThinkFuture could have is forcing the participants to think about the possible scenarios in the first place. My sense is that many of the people participating have never actually sat down and thought about what could possibly happen.

Scenarios 2.0 (not 1.0) 

I’m afraid you’re referencing at the wrong content.  The scenarios you quote in your blog are from a previous process, which were more NAR-centric and we completely agree with your analysis of them.  We reviewed these in advance of our engagement, built on some of the research we felt valuable, and then through the REthink process we have developed a different set of scenarios more focused on the business environment. The five scenarios that we should be talking about and which you experienced at Inman are the ones developed in 2012, namely:

  • “Ostrich”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “Jungle” (short term – 5yrs)
  • “New American Dream” and “American Dream Recaptured” (10 yr)

Please see the full report for the correct scenarios and information.  We welcome your feedback.  I think you’ll find that they meet the criteria of plausibility, relevance, challenging assumptions, and more.  Though striking the right balance between plausibility and stretching people’s imagination to new possibilities in such a large,  diverse and complex industry has been hard.

It could be the case that I was using Scenario 1.0 and not Scenario 2.0, but I actually don’t think so. I went off the printouts I got from the event itself, and then looked at the full report she linked to. But I have a whole series on the scenarios themselves coming up, so we can debate those there.

For instance, what is plausible to one person may be outlandish to another.  Putting that aside, these scenarios were designed as strategic thinking and dialogue tools.  The goal isn’t about predicting the future accurately, though we hope we’ve covered the range of possibilities.  Rather it’s about stimulating a strategic conversation that help NAR members and the industry as a whole learn and adapt to a rapidly changing environment.

Some more background:

  • For the short term scenarios, you’ll see that the underlying analytical framework is based on the groundbreaking “innovator’s dilemma” research by MIT’s Clay Christensen and many others. As this research shows, incumbents struggle to survive when a disruptive innovation hits their industry.  The majority of scenarios reflect this reality. In my professional view, and I was trained by the best in the field, this is far from wishful thinking.
  •  In addition, two of the scenarios challenge core assumptions around home ownership. To entertain a future where home ownership isn’t central is a huge shift and a brave leap for the NAR and it members.

Once again, I reiterate that while I agree 100% that getting some of the NAR members to even entertain a future where homeownership is not the default assumption is a big shift and a leap of courage, I think getting them to that point on their own by looking at the facts would have been better. But from a process standpoint, I don’t have a real issue with what Adaptive Edge did, and think they did a rather good job.

Facts + a new narrative transforming an industry 

As part of Scenarios 2.0 we have collected many “future facts” that describe the current and emerging realities.   For Future facts trailer here’s the YouTube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXNOz7NW4lc&feature=player_embedded#! [NOTE: When I went to check at post time, the video has been removed by the user.]

But while we love facts, facts alone don’t change an industry or complex system. What does? A powerful story about the future we, as industry stakeholders, want to create. As we know from the parables to current cognitive science, not only do stories help us make sense of the world, individually and collectively. But they also help extract the signal from the noise in a complex landscape.

We may not remember a pie chart or statistic but we will remember a story.  Our brains are hard wired to find them “sticky”, to use a [Malcolm] Gladwell term; and they can travel wide, far, and fast in a culture when they resonate. As one wise woman put it, “Stories are tools for knowing and judging. Change the stories, and you change how people live.”  This is the transformational potential of a good scenario process, since scenarios are just stories about alternative futures. In the end, we hope to co-create a new narrative for REALTORS, the industry,  and NAR.

We believe this will help catalyze deeper change, along with other strategic interventions. We are so excited to be part of this journey.  Not just because of the scale of what are doing.  But also because as futurists and forecasters and facilitators the better future we see requires a creative rethinking of the real estate industry, which has such a large role in shaping the lives of so many people in America and beyond.

Thanks again for your interest.  Let’s continue this dialogue.

My Response to Her Response

The overwhelming feeling is one of gratitude. She didn’t need to do this, but I’m glad she did.

I’d like to make clear that whatever disagreement or debate is in service to the ultimate cause: helping the real estate industry by forcing its members to think about things they do not normally think about. Adaptive Edge is certainly a top notch organization at doing that. And friends can disagree while holding that what they’re disagreeing on is still important.

I’m thrilled that NAR has engaged a company like Adaptive Edge to run its scenario planning, and I’m thrilled that NAR is undertaking the venture at all. So if I criticize, it is out of love, hoping to help improve things with what I see and think. Plus, it’s just plain old fun to debate with smart people, and Charles and Nicole-Anne fit that description to a T.

With that, I dive into the scenarios in the next installment. I just wanted to make sure you, my intrepid reader, had the opportunity to hear more from Adaptive Edge on the process, the thinking behind the scenarios, and the power of storytelling.

-rsh