By Pete Dyson, Senior Behavioural Strategist at Ogilvy Consulting’s Behaviour Change Practice
When the Vikings needed a word to describe an opening in a wall or roof of a building, they were very literal: Vindr (wind) + euga (eye) = vindauga (windeye) = window
The English language now uses the term more figuratively to describe a whole range of possibilities like ‘window of opportunity’ or a ‘window into the mind’.
It was the metaphorical meaning of windows that Joseph P. Overton, an electrical engineer turned public policy consultant applied when coining the term ‘The Overton Window’. This elegantly describes the range of policies that the public will accept. Ideas and concepts inside the window are normal and expected, everything outside the window is radical, ridiculous, or unthinkable. He argues that the evidence suggests that the easiest way to move that window is not incrementally but rather to present ideas at the extremes, as far away from the window as possible. By getting people to consider an unthinkable idea, even if they rejected it, all less polarising concepts become acceptable by comparison. The “window” will move slowly in that direction.
The Overton Window is not just for political theorists. It has tremendous implications for why thinking big, bold and crazy is actually a very rational and necessary condition to achieving relatively marginal change. In other words; shoot for the stars, even if you miss at least you’ll get to the moon.
The concept explains how President Trump shifts the national conversation by making big and bold claims that will probably never happen, but will definitely get attention and set an anchor against which more moderate (but still very ambitious) subsequent proposal can be made. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn’s nomination to be leader of the Labour Party in 2016 was initially considered an Overton Window strategy; ‘well he seems almost unelectable, but at least he’ll shift the conversation more leftwards’. An unexpectedly competitive performance in the 2017 General Election demonstrates the window of political possibility did change; the nation saw a new view from their window.
Can this be applied outside of politics? What does it tells us about creativity?
The ground rules of idea creation sessions often include predictable opening statements like ‘all ideas are good ideas’, ‘think big’ and ‘nothing is out of the question here’. We can now see this is not just wishful thinking and over-optimism, the Overton Window reveals there is a sound strategy of creating the biggest, boldest and most extreme ideas in order to lay the foundation for more minimal and simple ideas to get any traction whatsoever.
Experience at Ogilvy Change indicates that all ideas are organisational change ideas. Even the smallest nudge needs to overcome inertia and status quo. They must often be approved by many stakeholders and loved by the people on the ground that will act differently; be that volunteers handing out a charity collection leaflet or call centre agents saying something new when answering the phone. Change happens from the inside out.
So if you want to do minimalism then it’s sensible to think maximalism.
The next time you’re in a brainstorm and experience the opening call to arms to ‘think big’, then rest assured that this craziness is paving the way for the simplest ideas to get roots and flourish.
Szalek, B. Z. (2013). Some Praxiological Reflections on the So-Called Overton Window of Political Possibilities Framing and Related Problems. Reality of Politics. Estimates, (4), 237.
Beck, G. (2010). The Overton Window. Simon and Schuster.
Mackinac : www.mackinac.org/overtonwindow