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The Power of Haka

Em Campbell-Pretty
May 27, 2013

According to Wikipedia, the Haka “is a traditional ancestral war cry, dance or challenge... performed by a group, with vigorous movements and stamping of the feet with rhythmically shouted accompaniment.” When I attended Implementing SAFe, Dean Leffingwell used a video of the New Zealand All Blacks performing a haka to illustrate “The Power of Ba”. “Ba” is the place teams are in when they become high-performing, self-organising and energized. If you watch the video, I’m sure you will agree that the spine-chilling performance is the perfect illustration of what it feels like to be part of a team that has truly reached “ba”, a place where “we, the work and the knowledge are one”.

Recently, there was a reshuffle of people in our agile teams, predicated by the need to more evenly balance skills and knowledge across the EDW Agile Release Train. This change was unsettling for the teams, and I started to think about helping them find their “ba” again.  This led me to contemplate how I might convince the teams to invent and perform their own haka.

I started my campaign for a “Haka Challenge" by talking to my leadership team, who responded with "Excellent idea!" "You can't make me do the haka on my birthday!" and "Do we have to?". Not deterred by the mixed reaction, I took the idea to the Scrum Masters, who didn’t exactly bounce off the walls with excitement but were willing and thought it could be fun. With the Scrum Masters on board, I pitched the idea for a  “Haka Challenge” to the entire EDW Release Train, giving all the teams an iteration to prepare a haka for a “Hak-Off”.

Some teams were immediately inspired, others very reluctant, but over the course of the fortnight, they all got into it. The laughter from haka planning sessions could be heard through meeting room walls, and there was a quiet buzz on the floor as teams went about practising hakas while also trying to keep the content a secret.  One team's self-appointed creative director even tried to convince his team to dress up as the village people and haka to the tune of YMCA!

When the day of the Haka Challenge arrived, there was an air of anticipation as the teams gathered (in a rare show of punctuality) for our iteration kick-off event (aka Unity Day). There was facepaint, skirts made of post-it-covered flip chart paper, and a large contingent proudly sporting their "EDW Release Train" T-shirts.

Pipeline Services, a team of PMs and System Analysts, were first up.  Led by the broomstick carrying “Wicked Witch of the North Tower”, two pig-tailed cheerleaders and four spear-carrying warriors opened with the cheer “Pipeline Services are HOT TO GO! H-O-T-T-O-G-O!”. A  chant that is still buzzing around my head days later. 

Pipeline Services
Pipeline Services

Next up was the Green Hornet team, dressed in green rugby shirts and accompanied by one of their business stakeholders. The team’s technical lead led the war cry in Maori while pacing between team members. Thankful he read out the translation at the end of the performance!

Team Astrotrain’s quietly spoken scrum master was the next to take the stage, After getting his team in formation, he raised both hands in the air and lead a war cry about “spanking” Epics. (At EDW, “spanked” means “done done”).  Team Maglev’s haka was inspired by the EDW architecture. They were followed by Team Jacobite, who took the time to learn an actual Haka!  

While Team Kaizen amused the troops with their disco moves and use of real cucumbers! The mornings’ antics were concluded by a most unusual haka from the System team, which included wearing honey badger masks while reenacting “More Cowbell”. 

System Team
System Team

The flow-on effect was like magic. I had started out wanting to help the teams with "ba" and ended up creating "ba" across the entire train, as highlighted to me in an e-mail I received from one of my scrum masters the next morning:

Since doing the Haka exercise – and aside from the fact that I lost my voice …  
Everyone across teams have been congratulatory of the other teams and their members. It has instilled a massive cross pollination of communication and engagement going on!!! 
The quieter team members from various teams across the department are having animated corridor conversations 
The level of talking and noise being generated in the different team areas has been much, much higher, even late into the night!  
Further, people are far less tense and defensive in the general discussions across the department.  People are open and honest, after having embarrassed themselves.  
Basically, the teams are showing greater interest, engagement and ‘hunger’ for what they do, and what they are about … 
How do you quantify all of this?  You don’t, but what I do know is that the teams are more galvanised, and have a much stronger sense of their own context … and being part of the greater whole; being EDW!!! 

I think the "Haka Challenge" is going to be the highlight of my time with the EDW Agile Release Train for quite some time to come

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