Open Space Cowboys: a modern Western

Open Space Cowboys




“In this world there are two kinds of people: those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig.”


In Westerns, Cowboys have the simplest way of doing and saying things. They have a set of very simple rules, and, when faced with problems, apply them straightforwardly. They are their own bosses, yet always take into account their ecosystem; they need it to survive. And in most movies, the “Good”, meaning the ones that not only have guns and guts, but also a heart, will win.



What's happens in our companies? In our companies, we often see the exact opposite:


  • we tend to make things extremely complex, with lots of procedures and rules and control, so that decision making and problem solving becomes extremely difficult.
  • We avoid direct and meaningful conversations and minimize conflict, trying to go around problems rather than facing them.
  • We do not feel accountable or responsible for what we do, and we tend not to take into account those around us.
  • And finally, we believe that displaying our feelings and taking risks will cost us our position, or the next promotion.


This results in people disengaging, results plummeting and in innovation stuttering.


This is when Open Space Cowboys come into play--bringing back some of the positive aspects of those Western figures, even if they don’t fire bullets and kill people, but they fire stars into the space and kill barriers.



The Harrison Owen's vision The first Open Space Cowboy, Harrison Owen, aka “The Wave Rider”, now 80, had been a consultant for many years when he realized there must be a much simpler and more efficient way to solve problems and get teams to work together. He was tired of seeing ideas being shot down by complexity or hierarchy. So in the 70s, he went back to the basics of problem solving: gathering stakeholders, asking the right questions, openly discussing relevant topics and sharing all ideas.


He did this in the most ancient and powerful human design: creating a circle and “opening the space”.



The Open Space Technology This translated into a very simple approach he called “Open Space Technology” that can be described like this :


  • Find a general issue, a theme, as much as possible fitting these criteria:
    • A real life issue that people really care about
    • High level of complexity
    • High level of diversity in terms of stakeholders
    • High level of conflict and passion
    • Timeframe: due yesterday


  • Invite all stakeholders to a circle:
    • As diverse as possible
    • No hierarchy of title, experience or knowledge
    • Freedom to come and stay


  • Create a marketplace for all the topics people want to discuss
    • That are related to the theme
    • That are important for them
    • That they commit to discuss with whoever is interested


  • Go to work
    • Freedom to choose the topics they want to discuss
    • Small groups that form and break based on common interest
    • Time flexibility to allow creativity


In this simple and efficient configuration, anything can be expressed, shared and solved within a day or two. From redesigning the architecture of a building to reducing crime in a community or creating a common strategy after a merger, almost every issue can be successfully addressed with this approach. If people have the right attitude.



I'm *not* a poor lonesome cowboyThis is why the Open Space Cowboy went one step further to ensure people would be fully committed and in the right mindset. He created a set of wise and simple principles that would eliminate constraints and barriers to creativity and openness to efficiently solve problems in the Wild Wild World.


He described them this way:


  • Whoever comes are the right people. They chose to come in the space and therefore are bringing their gift to the circle. This ensures the moment is rich and full. Don’t be afraid of strangers or you will close the space. Make them feel welcome.


  • Whatever happens is the best that could have. We spend our lives thinking of what could or should have happened, not concentrating on the present. What we get enough, if we open up to it. Don’t expect things or try to control it. Accept what is.


  • Whenever it starts is the right time: we are desperate that we will not get it all done, that we need to manage the time. Creativity never happens when the clock says it should.


  • Wherever it happens is the right place: there are places where people are swirling with amazing energy: it is the same energy anywhere you open a circle and invite people in.


  • When it is over, it’s over: everything has a beginning, a middle and an end. We are afraid of ending. It hurts, we hang on to whatever was there before (that job, idea, partner etc). And this is self-inflicted pain. When we let go, this brings new space, new opportunities.



What's the right posture? To ensure people adopt the right posture, he also added two extremely important principles:


  • The law of two feet: if you feel you are not contributing or learning, use your two feet and move on. You are not doing others a favor by staying, and it is all your choice.


  • Be ready to be surprised: if you really think you have all the answers, you are closed. Questions create space, answers remove it. Sometimes we work very hard not to be surprised. But it does happen anyway, so better be prepared!


And finally, to further overcome people’s resistance to use their feet and accept to be “lonesome cowboys”, he defined two roles anyone could take:


  • Bumblebee: someone who goes from sessions to sessions, never staying very long, thereby harvesting, sharing and fertilizing discussions by adding new insights


  • Butterfly: someone that does not attend any sessions but flies around, beautiful and inspiring, and initiates side but deep discussions that can in turn bring wonderful ideas


How can you become an Open Space Cowboy (or girl)?First you need to open your own space: if you are not really convinced that the above mentioned principles can work and apply to you, you will fail in opening and holding the space. If you are still uncertain, find an opportunity to experience an open space. Over the past 30 years, there have been hundreds of thousands of Open Space events all around the world, so finding one should not be a problem.


Once you feel comfortable, try the ride! And there are thousands of Open Space practitioners around the world to help you find your horse and equipment and start “riding the space”.


As Harrison Owen said during the Open Space in New York in January 2016, we live in a transformative moment, and nobody has a clue on to what will happen with our world. So either we decide to close and maintain our illusion of control, “digging ourselves” or we open and let go to ride the wonderful opportunities that will arise, “loading ourselves”.


And the results will be high performance…and peace.

So listen to Ennio Morricone and Harrison Owen, and get ready for a wonderful ride!



© Credits photos: Once upon a time in the west; The good the bad and the ugly; Lucky Luke