Week 24, 2020
The Overton Window: Discourse, Acceptance, and Transformation
Each week I share three ideas for how to make work better. And this week, I look to political science for lessons on organizational change.
Why am I writing about this? I mentioned the Overton Window in passing a few weeks ago. Since then, I’ve been thinking about the concept in relation to organizational transformation.
Let’s dig in.
The Overton Window, otherwise known as the Window of Discourse, is a concept from political science used to highlight the range of mainstream opinion that exists on a specific issue within a specific group of people. Think ‘taxation’ within conservative and progressive groups for an obvious example. Depending on the group, you will find that some taxation initiatives are more or less ‘acceptable’ than others. Some ideas are mainstream. And the obvious takeaway is that you should limit your discourse to mainstream ideas if you want to avoid conflict and the ruffling of feathers.
For more on this, read Quartz’s treatment of the concept.
The Overton Window was first proposed by Joseph P. Overton and later extended by Joshua Treviño to include degrees of acceptance ranging from unthinkable to sensible. Plotted along an axis (see diagram on top) these two concepts combine to provide a snapshot of where popular opinion is currently at and, also, how able and willing the group might be to consider additional measures. And that’s important. Because the Overton Window isn’t just a temperature check, it’s a tool that political operatives use to design information campaigns and sway public opinion.
For more on this, Wikipedia is your friend.
Change happens when a new behavior reaches critical mass. And as we established in w522019, behavior is a product of mindset which, in turn, is a product of the environment. That is to say: Exposure to new ideas changes minds which, in turn, drives behavior. And what Overton realized was that one might direct public opinion by placing into the environment ideas that fall outside the Overton Window. Doing so will, over time, shift the window and gradually make ideas that previously seemed unthinkable to appear more reasonable.
For more on this, see Vox’s How Trump makes extreme things look normal.
If you are anything like me, the above will likely evoke lots of negative connotations. It’s easy to see how powerful parties can (and do) use the Overton Window to manipulate public opinion in ways that are more or less self-serving.
Just like the Overton Window is used in politics to sway public opinion, I reckon it can also be used in an organizational setting to drive transformational change.
The context might be different.
But the same rules apply.
Say you want to move your organization towards a greater degree of autonomy and self-management for example. Overton can help. First, by helping to assess acceptance and organizational readiness. Second, by identifying ideas and initiatives that can be used to push the envelope.
Something to think about.
That’s all for this week.
Until next time, stay calm.