Overton Window

Another entry for my set of frameworks.

The Overton Window is a political science term for the subset of policy ideas that a mainstream political actor feels comfortable espousing.  These change over time.  For example one time public policies aimed at encouraging the right sort of people to have children while discouraging the wrong sort resided comfortably inside the Overton Window.  These days ideas of that kind survive, even thrive, but they do it outside of mainstream political discourse.

That illustration is drawn from the Wikipedia article on the Overton Window.

This idea is useful in any community.  Consider for example management.  There are dozens and dozens of ideas about how to manage (just to be concrete I’ll pick two very random examples: a) own a  standard or b) metrics management)  At any given time your firm, department, team will have a subset of these that are inside the it’s window.  A political (or PR) process will be unfolding around the struggle to move a given idea back or forth on along this scale.  Consider for example family life: how about taking a vacation in a third world country?

Of course there are ideas that are entirely invisible.  Ideas that haven’t managed to enlist even a single political actor.  One of the reasons to hire new people, travel, socialize, etc. is to draw ideas into the window.

And then there are ideas that the mainstream suspects it should give some consideration.  I’ve often worked for firms where we had concensus that it would be a reasonable idea, in the abstract, to drag some idea into the window: e.g some QA, or a security audit, or a 3rd party design review, or an HR department, or an innovation lab.  But lip services is one thing.  Dragging an idea into the window is easy compared to getting it into the mainstream where it can thrive.

The mainstream is very good at fighting off infections.  It is unlikely to thank you for infecting it.  The most talented, or maybe I mean polite, political actors manage to shift the window without anybody noticing.

2 thoughts on “Overton Window

  1. Edward Vielmetti

    I wonder if there is a term for the kind of frame-shifting that goes on when you move an idea through this window by going from the public sphere to a technical sphere and back again.

    The typical way I can see this is to take a radical idea and then identify a set of experts in a field who can vouch for its sensibility within that field.

    The nice thing about experts is that there are so many to choose from.

  2. bhyde Post author

    Ed – Your comment makes me think of “venue shopping,” which is a legal term for seeking out the venue where your case will be heard most sympathetically.

    By example: if you can’t get that development halted by the zoning board, maybe the sewer commission can help, and if that doesn’t work maybe the traffic engineer can block it; and should all else fail we could activate the neighbors and stage a protest.

    I guess each venue has its own Overton Window. 🙂 Window shopping!

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