The origin of the Overton window has roots in public policy economics. The term took on mainstream popularity during the 2016 United States Presidential election. However, given that the concept deals with how people think and is universally applicable, those working within an organization can use it just as effectively as politicians do.
Joseph Overton developed the concept at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan in the mid-1990s to explain how ideas in society change over time and influence politics. A politician should be able to detect the Overton window in order to understand which policies they should pursue in order to win popular support. If they champion ideas outside the Overton window even if they believe in it, they risk support. The key lies in knowing which ideas lie right at the edge of the window and may find acceptability. Go too far out and your career as a politician might be at risk.
The two most commonly quoted examples to explain the Overton window are that of alcohol prohibition and gay marriage. While one was a popular stance decades ago, the other was unthinkable. Over the years, the change in public opinion lead to a change in policy.
Now let’s turn the lens.
In many ways, modern day organizations are little different from the political system. While they may be more open to experimentation and wild ideas, the Overton window still exists even if it is a little bit wider. Understanding this allows one to see which ideas lie within acceptable boundaries and what might be considered radical for the organization or the industry as a whole.
While the purpose of the Overton window lies in detecting its boundaries, one can also attempt to stretch it. If you have an idea that you strongly believe in and realize that it lies beyond the boundaries of the organizations or the managers Overton window, stand outside it and pull. As per Joseph Overton, the most effective way to do stretch the Overton window is not to advocate for minor, incremental changes to an already accepted idea, but to make the case for a currently “unthinkable” idea, stating it convincingly thus provoking an informed discussion. These efforts would make radical ideas look more normal, nudging them into the “acceptable” category, and eventually making them politically viable.
This is especially important when it comes to innovation. No matter how innovative an organization, it will occasionally come across an idea that is ahead of its time and will provide stiff opposition. In these situations, it is easy for individuals and teams to lose motivation if they do not spend time understanding the Overton window. Once they do, it is possible to understand which exaggerated version of the idea will spark the right debates and thus stretch the Overton window. Over time, they may notice that the idea that once appeared preposterous to the ones opposing it now finds itself worthy of consideration.
Let me attempt supplementing this with an example, imperfect as it may be. Imagine if I were to say work, as we know it today, would cease to exist. The world will turn into one large game. Every morning when you wake up, instead of walking into work, you walk into a game. Now this may not sound as radical an idea because of the existence of movies that have proposed life as a game; yet how many organizations have attempted it? What the movies did was stretch the Overton window to allow organizations to consider aspects of the idea and hence find it acceptable to bring in some aspects of play into work. Organizations today play around with elements of gamification but are still waiting for someone else to take the giant leap of faith and redesign work completely into play.
Let’s take another example – Buffer. The organization in 2013 made employee salaries public. For years, organizations worked hard to ensure that no employee knows the salary of another. Sharing compensation details in some cases could lead to termination of employment. The secrecy around pay was so high that compensation ranges too were and still are tightly guarded. A manager at best could tell the employee that they were high, low or in the middle of the range. The range in itself is rarely known. Buffer’s move made headlines in the world of HR sparking endless debates on this long held notion. It lead so some changes like salaries appearing in job postings and other places. While very few organizations have moved from their initial stance, the idea has wider acceptance today than it ever did before.
So be fearless in stating exaggerated ideas with confidence and spark informed debates on the extremes. The more the discussions spread, the more likely the organization is to redefine what is acceptable. Yes, for the longest time you may suffer some ridicule and opposition but it is nothing compared to being credited as the one who made the impossible happen.