Last time we talked about identifying where your product is relative to the Overton window. This week, we go a step beyond and examine the most powerful facet of the theory - that you can move the window itself. This means you can still act on an unpopular vision - it might just be a while until the final product is fully realized.

“Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity.” — Oprah Winfrey

Back in Overton’s political world, activists are the ones moving the window. Through telling stories, generating media attention, and passing cutting-edge policy at a small scale, they are constantly pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable to the mainstream. By this theory, elected officials only write public sentiment into legislation only after activists push the window into view.

This is akin to building sentiment towards a new product idea - only instead of passing local legislation, we first build up the infrastructure by launching proofs of concepts. This way, the team is ready to productionize as soon as the window arrives.

Depending on what’s holding the window back, you might use different tactics to move it:

  • Engineering - you might either build a proof of concept or launch an intermediary product that builds up the tech stack.
  • Business strategy - depending on the size of the gap, shifting strategy can be as simple as a series of pitches, or as hard as a decades-long roadmap with intermediary launches to build up your talent. A common example is merging 2 projects (or companies!) - it takes time, but you’ll end up better positioned in the long run.
  • Users - Again, depending on how big the gap is, this can either be as small as a marketing campaign, or as big as releasing stepping stone products until your original idea becomes “innovative” instead of “alien.”

So even if your product vision is unpopular right now - hold on to it. Keep refining the idea and working the window. In fact, pushing the window can even give you control over market timing, as we explore in the following case study.

Case study: Apple iPhone

This is a superb example of moving the window towards a particular vision.

At the industry level, we were moving towards a portable phone device, and each generation of product laid the technological foundation that the next one used.

(image source)

But on a personal level, Steve Jobs made it his mission to make sure the smartphone was the touch-screen experience we take for granted today.

It was a tall ask on all fronts. Prior to the iPhone, users thought of phones as devices with buttons you can press. Personal computers were coming into the mainstream. Capacitive touch screens were a brand new technology that hadn’t matured to the level needed for a consumer product. And the Palm Pilot was the standard for PDAs. How could Jobs convince everybody to buy this slab of glass and metal over the alternatives?

Jobs started by aligning everyone in the company to his vision. He wanted to stand out from other stylus-driven PDAs, so he killed the Apple Newton product. He steered the company away from the touchscreen tablet they had been prototyping and convinced them to build a phone instead.

Meanwhile, Apple piggybacked off an adjacent trend - MP3 players. But instead of putting out sticks with buttons like everyone else, they embedded touch-sensitive controls and eventually screens into the iPods. This product line built up the technology needed for the iPhone and got users used to toting screens around in their pockets. It also targeted a young, trendsetting demographic, to make sure there was a ready audience for iPhone’s first launch.

By being the one pushing the window, Jobs controlled the market timing and claimed the first-mover position. The rest is the stuff of product legend.