Sometimes, new ideas may come across as scary and radical.

Especially when compared to what has come before, or what is considered “normal” or standard in an industry.

While it is common for innovations to take time to diffuse through the different customer groups, it can sometimes be hard for ideas to be accepted when there are extreme views on opposite ends of the spectrum of issues.

Often, these issues can be very political, where groups divide themselves into camps that are either strongly for or strongly against an issue.

And this is where the Overton Window can help us understand how people can manipulate people with these extreme views, in order to make their idea seem more acceptable.

The Overton Window was developed by policy analyst Joseph Overton, to explain how ideas and policies would only be viable if they fell within a range of what society would accept.

There are always two extremes to what society is willing to tolerate, and in the middle is where everyone agrees (even if this is the lowest common denominator). Going from least to most controversial in both directions:

  • Policy / Standard: This is what everyone would consider to be normal for the field and there consensus that it is positive
  • Popular: other ideas on an issue which people generally agree are positive
  • Sensible: ideas which people can see the logical value in and are unlikely to disagree with, but not the most popular idea
  • Acceptable: Ideas which are good enough compared to the others, and people would accept if they were implemented, even if they are not the most popular. This is the border of the Overton Window and what people are willing to accept.
  • Radical: Ideas which are very divisive and unacceptable to people who hold the opposite view. Therefore will not be accepted by society overall
  • Unthinkable: Ideas which are so far beyond what is acceptable that neither party would think of actually implementing them for fear of repercussions. A small minority of extremists might like these ideas but general society would not.

In most situations where you have opposing viewpoints, or with general groups who think differently from one another, there will be an Overton Window of that is acceptable.

For example, with climate change there are people on one extreme that say we all immediately need to become vegan, and on the other extreme that this is all a hoax made up by a worldwide government conspiracy.

Another example is with software development, where some people think that open source should be the only way software is developed, while others think it is vital to keep complete intellectual property control of everything you develop.

Most people will not be at the extremes, but in the middle.

So what happens if you have a new desired idea which seems radical compared to what is the current standard? As many innovations are.

For most people, the idea is too radical and so should not be implemented.

How can you make this idea more appealing to society as a whole?

Well, you could spend a long time gradually improving the desired idea and innovation itself, taking on board customer feedback and improving the perceived value

…Or….

You could make the idea seem less radical by presenting an extreme, unthinkable new idea which other people will then compare it to.

As much as it pains me to say, one person who did this very well was Donald Trump.

He had extreme, radical views about immigration and wanting to reduce migration from Mexico. His desired idea was to therefore gain support for measures to enforce border security and deport illegal workers (as long as they were not working at his resorts).

But even mildly conservative Americans know that it is unacceptable to just go around deporting people, and so his desired idea was outside of even their Overton Window.

So instead of improving the quality of the desired idea, Trump changed the perception of that idea by creating an even more radical new idea.

Saying things like “Mexicans are rapists, we are going to build a huge wall, and Mexico is going to pay for it”.

The media went wild, calling out how absolutely unacceptable and crazy these ideas were.

The fact that a small minority of people took them seriously also brought about discussions about how it was possible that people could support such unthinkable ideas.

But in the meantime, compared to these unthinkable ideas, his desired ideas about border control were much more sensible and acceptable in comparison. In the end, some of the desired ideas even managed to be enacted, because people were still thinking about (and distracted by) how crazy the unthinkable ideas were.

It is not just right-wing politics which can use the Overton Window. I would argue that Gretha Thunberg has performed a similar role, shaming politicians and companies about their impact on the environment. Environmental groups she helped inspire, like Fridays for Future, now demand incredible cuts to emissions, and when the EU announced plans to cut emissions by 55% instead of 40%, they said this was still not enough. Without them continuing to push, society would have thought 40% cuts were unachievable, let alone 55% cuts, but now this is seen as a victory.

Now, it is important to realise that it is not just politics where the Overton Window can be used. It can also be used to show the value of your new innovation, especially by showing counter-examples which are deliberately too radical or crazy.

This can be especially useful in marketing, where you only need to communicate the idea of something radical for people to think your current offering is better by comparison.

For example, Ryanair is one of the worlds leading low-cost, no-frills airline.

People know that the seats are not as comfortable as first class, and that they don’t get free refreshments. But they still complain about it.

So in 2009, Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary, revealed that it was considering coin slots on toilet cubicle doors, so that people needed to pay to use the toilet on the planes.

“One thing we have looked at in the past and are looking at again is the possibility of maybe putting a coin slot on the toilet door so that people might actually have to spend a pound to spend a penny in future,”

The media went crazy for this story, saying it was one step too far, and asking people if they would be willing to pay less for a plane ticket if it meant the risk of having to pay to use the toilet in the air.

In comparison, the normal low-price service that people were currently getting, toilet included, looked much better.

The genius was that O’Leary was never actually going to implement such a radical idea.

But by simply placing it in people’s heads, it made his current offering look better by comparison. That was his real desired idea all along.

So if someone thinks that your innovation is too radical, ask them what they would think of an example where you took the essence of your innovation to the absolute extreme.

You might be surprised at how much better people like your desired idea.

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