Rethinking the REThinkFuture Program: Part 1

At Inman Connect this year, I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in REThink Future, an initiative of NAR that attempts to open up the strategic planning process to the membership and to some non-members (like me). Given that I do strategic planning for a living, and given that I have a few thoughts about the challenges facing the real estate industry, I went into the exercise excited.

And came out with, you guessed it, a few thoughts on how to change the process. I’m a Change Agent, baby! (The previous sentence should be read in a wry self-mocking tone, with a forehead smack and a slight shaking of the head.)

What NAR is trying to do is admirable: getting the rank and file membership, as well as local leadership, truly engaged in the NAR Strategic Plan (a copy of which may be found here). Traditionally, said Strategic Plan was crafted by the NAR Strategic Planning Committee (members can be found here) and handed down from on high to “members” who never read it, never engaged with it, and frankly couldn’t care less.

And this isn’t unusual for any large organization. Ford doesn’t necessarily include large number of its factory workers in its Strategic Planning either. What is unusual is for that organization to then actively seek out opinions and views from the rank and file and from outsiders. What is unusual is for that organization to invest significant time and money (NAR hired CEHolmes Consulting [CORRECTION: The company retained by NAR is Adaptive Edge, not CEHolmes Consulting. Notorious regrets the error. This post has been updated/edited.] a professional discussion facilitation company, to lead REThink Future) to do this, with an eye towards modifying their existing plan.

So first, NAR should be applauded for the effort, and encouraged to continue even with changes.

It is, however, speaking truth to a friend to let him know that his current path will not get him where he wants to go. Since I stay in this quirky little industry because I genuinely love so many of the people in it, I shall indulge myself — it’s my blog, after all — in offering up some free advice. Which is likely worth exactly what NAR paid for it.

You are free to skip this entire series if you don’t much care about NAR, Associations, and the like.

What Is It That REThink Future Aims to Achieve?

To evaluate the effectiveness of any program, one must begin with the stated objective. In the case of REThink, the stated goal is:

The Strategic Planning Committee is taking a fresh, new approach to how we are developing our strategic plan. It is specifically designed to encourage dialogue and to open minds about thinking big for our future.

The idea is to crowdsource the strategic plan, relying on the wisdom of the crowd. And NAR would like to have a few question answered:

In an ever-changing world, what is the future of the real estate industry in 5 to 10 years?

How will this impact:

  • Consumers, including buyers and sellers?
  • Agents, brokers and companies?
  • NAR, state and local associations?

To aid in the thinking, NAR and Adaptive Edge presented a number of scenarios and asked the participants to discuss them and answer a couple of specific questions on them, all of them in the vein of, “Given that Scenario, what would you do in response?”

The goal then inherently must be to change the existing Strategic Plan. Otherwise, why bother with the exercise? Just make a series of town halls to educate the members about the Strategic Plan. There is little point to asking people what they would do if none of those answers would actually change the Plan.

And the leadership who conducted the session emphasized over and again that they were looking for all ideas, no matter how radical, no matter how challenging, to break through the Thick Blue Line of REALTORS simply keeping their true opinions to themselves.

Problems of Methodology: Organizing the Discussion

The first problem, then, to be solved is a methodological or process problem.

The event was configured as a series of small discussions of no more than six people per table. That might be wonderful for the six people at that table, but what of the rest of us who might want to hear something really interesting being brought up over there?

The idea was that in any group discussion, certain personalities tend to talk too much (*ahem*), thereby dominating and drowning out others less voluble. Trouble is that this phenomenon also happens in a table of six. And the more important issue is that it keeps those radical, out-of-box thoughts limited to a table of six. It is difficult to leverage the wisdom of the crowd when the crowd is kept dispersed into tiny cells. At one table, an idea may be suggested that is pure lunacy, but the other five people are also lunatics. Exposure to the larger audience might quickly show that the idea is in fact idiotic. (Why do you think I write this blog?) Kept to small tables, and then written up by the Scribe, to be officially collected by NAR, those idiotic ideas take on substance they do not deserve.

Problems of Methodology: Scenarios

The second problem is that NAR used a number of scenarios to engage in scenario planning. Scenario planning is an invaluable tool and an important part of any strategic plan. As REThink Future itself put it:

Scenario planning helps us both adapt to future changes and proactively shape the future we want. It is also a critical tool to improve our decisions in the present, because this process expands our perspective, identifies new opportunities, and can overcome our collective and individual blind spots— especially to key game-changers, which often challenge our assumptions and beliefs.

It is important to remember that scenarios are not predictions. Rather, they are alternative stories of the future; they depict how current events and trends could play out over time. Good scenarios include both the expected and unexpected, as well conventional and unconventional thinking. In order for them to be useful, scenarios must be plausible, relevant and challenging; they also need to diverge enough to cover the range of possible futures that we may have to live in. (Emphasis added)

As my friend and co-podcaster Gahlord Dewald said via Twitter, “Think of it as D&D for REALTORS.” And as a longtime Dungeon Master in many a grand campaign, I’m a huge fan of thinking of things as D&D for REALTORS.

So far so good. Where the problem comes in is that the Scenarios, for the most part, fail the basic tests outlined of plausibility, relevance, and challenge. Some of these Scenarios presented do not read as scenarios at all, but as wishful thinking. And while wishful thinking is a lot of fun, especially in a D&D campaign, it tends to be less than useful thinking when trying to figure out what to do in response to a world that does not behave as one wishes.

Charles Holmes, our lead facilitator, defended the Scenarios as a product of numerous meetings, focus groups, studies, and the like. And I believe him. But let’s dig a little bit deeper, based on what evidence I have.

One of the Scenarios is based on the idea that homeownership accelerates, driven by Gen-Y and immigration. I openly wondered what reality this was. It turns out, it’s based on a series of meetings that the Strategic Planning Committee held over the years. A hint is found in this 2011 Report, in which we find this passage on Technology:

Scenario One: We are the drum majors of the real estate market.

Real estate gets it right. Both the industry and the organization understand the threat of growing competition from nontraditional sources and build on the opportunities created by new technology. The REALTOR® organization positions itself as the teacher and facilitator of new technology into the industry, enabling members to position themselves as the primary option for consumers in the real estate market. It tracks changes in technology, acting as the industry’s research and development arm and is agile enough to keep up with, and in some cases ahead of, technological change as it applies to the real estate transactions process. Additionally, the organization uses its size to garner the benefits of scale in the use of technology and pass on these benefits to REALTORS®. It supports and encourages the use of cutting edge technology by members to serve the consumer.

The organization also adopts the technology that allows it to increase the quality and speed of its communication with members, using channels that they frequent and segmenting messages to subgroups of members so that the organization is heard. This increases the effectiveness of the REALTOR® organization in representing the interests of REALTORS® and of property owners. The typical REALTOR® has embraced the use of technology in its most advanced forms. The REALTOR® presents property descriptions rich in information to consumers on an instantaneous basis. Combined with their access to information, REALTORS® offer to the public the most complete and accurate knowledge about property that the public can access. Using social networks and viral marketing techniques, REALTORS® are able to reach the emerging younger buyers and sellers and become their first choice for assistance in real estate transactions. The consumer looks to the REALTOR® as the first and best source of information about all aspects of the real estate market. And because of all these changes and the beneficial use of technology, real estate becomes a career attractive to younger people and the industry rejuvenates itself.

Probability: 42 percent

A similar upbeat assessment in the Demographics section entitled, “Organized Real Estate is Hot, Hot, Hot” and the probability assigned to that scenario is also 42 percent.

Obviously, since I’m not part of the Strategic Planning Committee, I’m not privy to the facts and information that NAR used. But I cannot help but wonder how the members of that Committee thought these two scenarios are 42% likely to occur. I’d like to see those facts.

A Few Suggestions

I’d like to see future REThink Future events change how it goes about its business. I think these changes would help the program achieve its stated goal of changing the Strategic Plan.

1. Make It Obvious That REThink Matters

Since the actual people who can change the NAR Strategic Plan, the event needs to be configured as a conversation with the Strategic Planning Committee. If the entire Committee cannot be present, then at least a few people in leadership should be. In fact, I wondered why Moe Veissi was not present in person, instead sending a pre-recorded video. If there’s something more important than setting the Strategic Plan in place for the President, I’d like to know what that is.

I’ll say this: My impression was that REThink Future wasn’t a high priority, because not one of Moe Veissi, the current President, and Gary Thomas, President-Elect, and Dale Stinton, CEO of NAR, showed up. The leadership of people like Shannon King and Elizabeth Mendenhall is to be admired and applauded, but… how important could this initiative be if the Big Dogs couldn’t be bothered to come and listen?

If REThink Future is important, then the Very Important People need to attend, to show that it is important.

2. Don’t Present Scenarios, Present the Facts

I’ll have more on this in Part 2 of this series, but… I rather think the biggest value for REThink Future could be to get local leadership and the rank and file members to start thinking about what the future might look like in the first place. Planning the Scenario could be an even more important part of this particular exercise than Scenario Planning. Again, more on this in Part 2.

3. Present the Existing Strategic Plan

Since the goal is to modify the existing 2012-2014 Strategic Plan, I rather think it would be useful to present said Plan to people.

For example, did you know that one of the current Strategic Plan goals is “The consumer recognizes that REALTORS® adhere to a strict Code of Ethics”? Might I suggest that there is a bit of a gap between present reality and future goal in terms of consumers recognizing anything at all having to do with REALTORS(R), and that the people who would attend things like REThink Future might have a suggestion or five on how to achieve that goal?

So I’d suggest finding a way to present the existing Strategic Plan at the sessions. Don’t assume that the attendees have read it.

Next, Scenarios…

In the next installment, we’ll tackle the scenarios themselves, as well as some facts and figures I think have to be part of any sort of scenario planning to ensure plausibility, relevance, and challenge.


[EDITED: Corrected a mistake on the firm working with NAR.]

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Rob Hahn

Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

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