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Fans of Spencer Johnson’s book will recognize the theme in today’s column: Something has definitely moved in today’s real estate industry. For decades, the industry built by Baby Boomers for Baby Boomers has essentially run the same race through the maze, finding the cheese almost every time. Periodically, the cheese was moved or a wrong turn was taken, but never very far and never a dead end. Usually, within months, the industry figured out how to navigate new turns and once fattened themselves again on the rediscovered cheese. Yet could a recession have pose a different problem to this “re-routing strategy” for managing change?

What happens to an industry when it isn’t just the cheese that has been moved but the entire maze?

Most of the past changes to the real estate industry have been college-text-book problems. Hardly anything came along to completely destroy the industry. Automobiles eliminated horse-drawn buggies, the personal computer eliminated typewriters and the iPod eliminated compact discs. But pick anything you like and it really was a gradual change for the real estate industry. Different forms of agency, the explosion of the internet, the commonplace use social networks. Each change did move the consumer – but only a little to the left or a little to the right. None significantly moved the consumer far away or out of sight. Even the internet revolution failed to revolutionize: 85% of consumers still use an agent to buy or sell a home. They might avoid dealing with agents when looking for homes, but so what? Getting consumers to do some of the work on their own should have been a boom for the industry. Kiosks save millions at the airlines; ATMs save millions for banks. Agents needn’t play taxi driver any more. That leaves more time to make a lot more money.

The fact that they don’t is indicative of the deeper problem.

Every time the consumer moved a little, REALTORS quickly caught up. When consumers shifted from REALTOR.COM to Zillow, brokerages revamped their websites to re-attract them with something shiny. When third parties nabbed consumers first, then resold them as “leads,” brokers copied the model using their relocation departments. Brokers recaptured the flag because 60% of consumers stick to the first agent who responds to them, and didn’t want to wait for someone to get back to them Every time the cheese moved a little, it really wasn’t hard for brokers to find it again.

Unfortunately, none of these strategies will work in the future. Because it isn’t the the cheese that has simply moved. It’s the entire maze.

When a maze moves in any industry, it signals a collapse of the existing organizational structure. Real estate is just coming to grips with the same phenomenon that auto, travel and computer industries have already passed through. The way in which real estate is fundamentally organized, conducted and managed is on the verge of changing so radically, it’s like entering an entirely new maze. Sure, some “hold outs” of the yesteryear-maze-model will resist, but the nightly news is chronicling their slow, painful demise. GM isn’t the only company to fail to recognize a new maze.

And while companies re-search the old maze, trying to find the cheese, they can look and look and look; but it’s never going to be found. It’s simply not in this maze any more.

Every old-maze concept is being challenged today. More agents don’t make more profits. Technology won’t save the day if people refuse to use it. Managers can’t be firemen. Recruiting other companies’ problems is dumb. Websites without videos attract no buyers. Untrained agents should never be allowed to answer the phone.

Don’t confuse the maze with the cheese,however, Yes, today’s consumers today are different. But they aren’t invisible. We know all about them. Sometimes too much, if you visit MySpace. We understand the cheese, then. We just haven’t changed our “best practices” in sales, marketing, training and management to reach them. Current pathways through the maze were for Boomer clients, and practitioners. Applying them to Gen X sellers, Gen Y buyers and future sales people is futile. Who watches silent movies any more? Oh, right: Mostly REALTORS on their own listings.

Even technology won’t be the instant GPS through the maze. Instead, brokers will need an entirely new strategy. To be successful in the future, companies will need to be equipped to cross a new maze. Too many are waiting to simply walk the old paths.

Every old path through the maze has become a dead end.

Need proof? More than 250,000 agents left the industry in the last two years. That’s not only because they were ineffective salespeople. That’s part of the answer. But it’s also an indictment of our entire maze – a system in which companies thought they could create careers for anybody and everybody. For 250,000 people, plus the remaining 750,000 others. We did eventually sell 5 million transactions last year, but it took about a million people to do it. Plus managers, administrators and others. Do the math. It means most of our friends died before getting to the cheese at the end of the maze.

To navigate a new real estate maze, new answers are needed. Not better equipment along the old paths. Finding entirely new paths. Companies who focus on highly performing agents, not offices full of them. MBA style leadership that manages outcomes, not individuals’ activities. Building teams who specialize in quality, consistency, cost-savings. And maximizing time. Expanding only when the current resources are working at 100% capacity, not because there’s a whiff of new cheese in the air.

Along the way, artifacts of the dead industry must be left behind. Slay and eat the purple cows before you enter the new maze. Burn the parchments of cold-calling scripts and download social networking software onto your smartphone. Throw away the scrolls of recruiting incantations. Every spreadsheet of escalating commission-splits must be deleted. None of these tools will help you get through the new maze.

And don’t worry about the new consumer. They are already there, waiting, hopeful that brokers will make it through the maze to meet them. The next generation of buyers and sellers has already started ahead. They have made some marks on the wall, left some clues as to where they can be found.

It’s now up to the real estate industry whether or not it’s going to read the handwriting on the wall.

– Matthew