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Knowledge spillovers, chance encounters and invigorating dissent

“When the composition of a group is right – enough people with different perspectives, running into one another in unpredictable ways, the (creative) group dynamic takes care of itself.”Jonah Lehrer: ‘GroupThink’ (The New Yorker, January 30th, 2012)

As a direct consequence of neither being associated with an MLS, nor being members of The National Association of Realtors, many of us here in the Manhattan real estate community don’t attend conferences. But as I begin to attend more of them, fueled by greater national social media participation in Twitter and Facebook, there’s something consistent I hear after every event. That the real value of attending is not only the connections you make, but the existing connections you’re able to strengthen by showing up and spending time with your peers, those people you spend time with throughout the day chatting online. That digital relationships are being validated and nurtured by in-person exchanges.

Is the value of these connections happening at the expense of attending the program itself?

As someone who often virtually attends events, living vicariously through a hashtagged stream of tweets and status updates, viewing an event through that often murky (and at times misleading) digital lens produces a striking question about one of the core purposes of such events. Namely, the ability to inspire action and creativity in the attendees. How much of this is driven by the program, and how much by the shared social interaction of the attendees simply being in the same place?

Is the need to connect, stronger than the need to be present in a speaker’s keynote?

In an era saturated with social media, the archaic topic of groups and how they work is, ironically, a particularly modern one. As marketers and brands race to the bottom of the web to organize circles, followers and lists into ever more specific ways to target people driven into a conversion funnel, conferences seem a strange but appropriate place to focus exploring the issue of inspiring group creativity. Let’s begin with the idea of teamwork.

Jonah Lehrer, writing recently in The New Yorker, describes the process by which we’re seeing fewer ‘lone geniuses’ in the modern era. Where we’d once have had Edison, Einstein or Ford, the phenomenon of the singular modern genius appears to be fast deteriorating. Perhaps our last great one, maybe the last great one, to many, was Apple’s Steve Jobs. Lehrer positions this trend as a natural symptom of progress. As problems of science and technology become more complex, they’ve forced collaboration and teamwork, with projects having naturally evolved to become larger and more difficult. As researchers are forced to become more specialized, there also has to be more of them in order to build or solve the increasingly complex issues. The aggressive expansion of human knowledge means, as Lehrer characterizes it, that people must either work together or fail alone.

This is essentially why the ideology of teamwork is rampant in modern business. The more ideas explored, the greater the ability to solve problems faster and more efficiently. True? Not so, says Lehrer. He offers the thought that, in opposition to brainstorming as a means to develop a broad range of ideas, the notion of debate, criticism and constructive dissent, organized in such a way that the conditions for discussion are being held by not only peers but new voices, ultimately produces the most creative, innovative and exceptional solutions. And not just during the sessions themselves, for a prolonged period of time afterwards as well, as the conversations are absorbed, digested and considered. This is again, something we hear a lot about in the aftermath of real estate conferences.

“Dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and reasess our own viewpoints.” – Charlan Nemeth, Professor of Psychology at The University of California at Berkley (Quoted in ‘GroupThink’, The New Yorker, January 30th 2012)

Of course, the idea of a confrontational debate is problematic for many, but proven to ultimately be a lot more productive. Disagreement facilitates solutions. It’s unpredictable and invigorating. Lehrer concludes by sharing the story of how important the location of communal, shared spaces was to Steve Jobs’ vision of building the new Pixar Headquarters in the late nineties. As described in Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Jobs, it was specifically designed around a centralized lobby space, so that everyone had much more of an opportunity, every day, to run into each other.

Why? Because Jobs passionately advocated the idea that the best meetings are the accidental ones. The ones that happen in hallways, elevators and between events. That’s what I hear too when following real estate conferences online. Jobs even began to relocate specific amenities around the campus in order to facilitate making this happen more often. Mailboxes, restrooms, meeting rooms and the cafeteria were all moved to a common atrium space. It should be no surprise that the new Apple Headquarters planned for Cupertino is entirely circular and the very summit of such an approach. The strength of relationships made and grown as a result of this architectural approach is not only fostering better communication, but also incubating new ideas, new ways of working, and new solutions to problems. It’s better business.

This is what I hope for in every conference I attend. That incredible balance between an inspirational, insightful and genuinely creative program, one where the problem I want to have is not being able to write all the ideas down fast enough, and the shared passion, creativity and excellence that comes with the physical friction of attending with your peers.

I need solutions, not advice on the latest apps.

I crave hearing things from outside of our industry that have inspired customers, not the same internal data nano-discussions.

I want an inspiring glimpse into the future, not diatribes on why video drives traffic to listings.

Our industry currently faces a tremendously overwhelming volume of problems, and aggressive disintermediation is a very real concern. Only through the unpredictable, unexpected, serendipitous exchange of ideas, often held in the hallways and corners of conferences, can we, as marketing, brokerage and technology professionals, provide the solutions that our industry and its customers so desperately want. As I fly back to New York City on April 14th, I want the problem of looking over my notes filled with fresh inspiration and insight, and not knowing where to start.

I’ll see you all soon.

Matthew Shadbolt speaks at RETSO on Friday, April 13th at 9am on ‘Why Social Media Makes Us All Miserable’