In my first executive job, I learned the concept of the “right of first concern.” Here’s how it works:
– Take a decent-sized company, large enough to have a bureaucracy
– Get some people into a room to discuss an idea
– Have someone do an extraordinary amount of work to present the idea
– Discuss the idea, with most people supportively commenting on the merits of the idea. After all, opportunity is wonderful!
– The first person to compliment the presenter, glowingly praise the idea then with furrowed brow say “My main concern is …” now controls the conversation
– Of course that person “loves” the idea and isn’t saying anything negative … just sharing a concern for the presenter’s well being
– Oh no! Maybe the opportunity isn’t so great!
– Because that person has shared a risk that sounds scary, the entire discussion now focuses on the scariness of that risk, and all the ways the idea might go wrong
– It’s now become a creativity contest – who can come up with a new and different reason to be afraid?
– Each ensuing speaker comes up with a new angle as to why the idea is risky, sharing their concern with supportive words, furrowed brow and thoughtful tone
– Now the group has talked themselves into being very afraid
– Since the fear is of a “risk,” not something that has actually happened, there is no satisfactory answer
– The idea dies. After all, who wants to do something so scary?
– The person who exercised the “first right of concern” is viewed as a genius for having saved everyone from that terrifying thing that might happen
– Works in any bureaucracy. “Risk” is terrifying, cannot be proven as “not a risk” and always outweighs opportunity if people are frightened enough