Liberty Trees, Water Coolers, Imagineers & Pixar

What do liberty trees, water coolers, Imagineering and Pixar have in common? Well, let’s start right in the heart of Liberty Square at the Magic Kingdom to find the answer. The Liberty Tree represents a famous elm tree that stood in Boston, near Boston Common, in the days before the American Revolution. The Tree was a rallying point for the growing resistance to the rule of England over American colonies. It is considered by some the site “where America was born.” In time such trees were designated throughout other towns.

In those times, holding an unauthorized assembly was dangerous business that carried threats of imprisonment or death. The casual appearance of a group chatting beneath the shade of a tree was much safer. As resistance to the laws of England became greater, colonists would gather to determine how to resist the suppression. There they would assemble, express views, and vent emotions. The lanterns on this tree suggest that as colonists they either hang together, or hang separately as Ben Franklin admonished.

Such a place exists in offices today. It’s known as the water cooler. Water coolers are really unofficial gathering places. In morning meet-ups, employees meander over to the coffee pot and kbitz. At noon, you might see them sitting around the office kitchen. Later in the afternoon, it’s off to the water cooler. To a manager, many of these kinds of activities are a waste of time. But for a savvy leader, they can serve as unique opportunities to:

First, create a social network where people feel connected to one another.

Second, talk out employee feelings, hopes and frustrations, all which serve to help them feel heard and understood.

Third, create a sense of collaboration and unity in furthering the work.

Head over to Walt Disney Imagineering. Disney always had a creative place for a water cooler. It was called the hallway. in their book, Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making MORE Magic Real, they talk about a hallway culture. For them this was more than simply passing by each other as you went from office to office. Rather, they used the hallway as a place to post their storyboards of projects they were currently working on. And if you were walking with others down the hallway and saw pictures of theme park projects planned for the future, wouldn’t you stop to look and talk?

Not to be outdone in this modern era, the R&D division of Walt Disney Imagineering has come up with their own virtual space for sharing ideas. In an age of social media where employees could simply be texting or Facebooking, Disney has directed that social energy in a productive manner by creating the Virtual Water Cooler. It’s available on everyone’s computer, and can be projected on a wall. And it allows people to share ideas from Hong Kong to Paris to Burbank.

Pixar took the liberty tree concept and made it the focal point when they created their studios in Emeryville. The notion was that they needed a common plaza that everyone had to cross through to get from one side to another. When the facility was first open, the effect was tremendous. People who hadn’t really seen each other much as the studios had grown over that time were suddenly meeting each other again.

Other organizations do similar things like at IBM which has what’s known as a Beehive. If you’re jealous, and wish you had an R&D group of your own, don’t fret. There are software makers like Triple Creek, whose Enterprise Mentoring System create such systems for learning, knowledge management, and networking. So you can have your own virtual water cooler as well!

Ask yourself:

  • What does your hallway and water cooler culture look like?
  • Is that culture intentional?
  • Is it focused on moving the organization in a positive way?
  • How can you build on virtual solutions to connect everyone?

The solution is for leaders to hang their lantern under the tree alongside employees. It’s not enough to say you have an open door policy. You must take time to informally socialize with others, but in constructive ways. You have a corporate culture. The question is whether it’s by default or design. Foster positive networking and communication. And reap the harvest of a more unified organization.