We strive to develop regions and knowledge-based businesses
Michal Vallo, the founder of Aguarra, is a man who, through his activities in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, tries to develop and support businesses with added value - not assembly plants, as the state-run lures try to do with their investments. Over the last years he and his colleagues have managed to build the Agile community as a platform for sharing and exchanging experiences of technology companies (regular meetings are held in Prague, Brno and Bratislava, irregular ones in other cities) and he also organizes the Agile conference, which this year had more participants from abroad than from the Czech Republic and was definitely a conference of European format. Michal's vision is a functioning Central European competence centre in the field of agile methods and technological innovation - you can judge for yourself whether he is succeeding in fulfilling this vision. Our conversation was partly sparked by a drive through Kladno, the former heavy industry outpost where Aguarra is based, and so it was bound to veer into the topics of business sustainability, assembly plants and historical innovation.
Michal, give us an idea of what your effort is actually about, what is Aguarra's vision?
Before Aguarra was founded, I was a director at Actum and there I introduced a certain philosophy into our business. We couldn't pay above-standard salaries, so we decided to teach people how to run their own business so that when they wanted to leave the company, they wouldn't have to look for a job anymore. That was the main idea that we did our business for, and that's where our roots of knowledge business development are.
Do you place most of Aguarra's training in regions for their development, or is there also pragmatism, such as lower costs?
From the beginning, when we do agility training, we situate it in regions. The reason is simple: to teach people from Prague and Brno to go to the surrounding cities and to promote business in these locations. We buy services here, we try to spend money here, but it's not always easy. An example is the reconstruction of our headquarters in Kladno, which we commissioned from several Kladno companies. In the end, we had to terminate the contract with about half of them due to poor quality and hire Prague companies.
But this can also be a lesson for regional companies. Reject them, but give them feedback on their work, explain to them that the problem is poor quality. But the idea of bringing companies and people to the regions with the intention of improving the quality of local services is a powerful one.
Yes, but it's still a long run. Because people are not used to valuing the quality of service and work. We have experience of this, especially with young people. (Michal interrupts his talk and shows me a historical furnace for removing sulphur from iron ore...) See those three chimneys? In Britain, they came up with the technology to remove sulphur at the end of the 19th century. from low-grade iron ore and built the first furnace to do it. Thirty days after it was started, our people built it here. All in an age long before the Internet or mobile phones. It's incredible how people were in touch with each other back then, had information about what was going on and what was going on, and they were able to use that technology immediately. And it was at the moment when this furnace was completed that the region started to grow, the quality increased, the money came in and the city developed. So technology, applied appropriately, can bring prosperity to a region, and that's what we're trying to do in Aguarra, only in the 21st century.
What does agility even mean to you? People outside of IT may not know what it is. So can you give us your perspective on it?
But agility did not originate in IT and is not about IT, it is more about management techniques focused on operational efficiency, collaboration, team composition and development, delivering value, providing insight into the project. Agility is about decent business, about trust in business, just like in Tomas Bata's time. Agility is not about complex written contracts and pressure from a position of strength. But a lot of people understand agility as just methods and tools for software development. Personally, I see agility mainly as an issue of motivation. Do I want to create quality services, or do I just go to work to make some money? Do I want to enjoy the "cool" and "free" life and culture of the start-up community, or do I really want to create value for my environment? But start-up enthusiasts often don't have the knowledge or experience to build something like this. Their ideas then come out from a limited perception of the world and therefore don't take hold in practice, or are small things or imitations of foreign projects, just nothing groundbreaking, like control systems, data analysis, medical devices...
And your vision is to contribute here and build a Central European competence centre for agility. What does that entail?
We want to get trainers and foreign students to come to the Czech Republic for training. At the same time, we are trying to grow our trainers who are able to go abroad and export our services. The purpose of this vision is that money should flow into the Czech Republic, where business is created, and not go abroad, as is the case with foreign companies. And this is something that is going very slowly for us, because we do not feel any support here. We need a turnaround in this respect in the Czech Republic as well, so that we have something to build on. When we had a workshop near Prague with the world-famous Mary Poppendieck, most people came from abroad, only two people came from Prague. The situation was similar with this year's Agilia conference in Brno. When I started as a director after school, I had no experience or mentor and I was aware of that. So I joined another school, tried to educate myself and paid for courses. Eventually I completed my MBA and this education changed my world view quite a lot. But even that wasn't my end, further education and traveling to do so pushed my horizons further.
I perceive that what is missing here is a certain discipline and willingness to work on oneself. People are satisfied with their condition, they have enough, they are not dealing with any serious problems, and therefore, in my opinion, they do not have the need and the desire to achieve something, to fight for something. For example, it changed me personally a lot when I became untargeted homeless in South America after college. If I wanted to get back, I had to build a position there. I eventually did, and once I made enough money, I could go back home. If we just go spoiled and go to corporations for jobs and want more and more, nothing much will change. When we invited TRIZ, the experts in systemic innovation management, to the Czech Republic, we found that there is hardly any development being done in Europe today. These experts work mainly in Asia, where most of the research is concentrated today. This is mainly Korea, Japan and, more recently, China, but we don't seem to mind that too much. But it is research, investment in education and technological infrastructure that is behind Korea's rapid economic growth.
Can each of us do something to support innovation, or do you think it is mainly the role of the state?
I think it's a lot about people. A manager at any level cannot just be a blind administrator of a process given by a foreign headquarters who has achieved a certain social status. It has to be a leader, a real driver of the company's development, then the rest will come by itself. If the state does not directly harm and does not go against, then it is not needed for innovation (except for education), but of course it can help a lot, as the example of Korea or the USA, Sweden, Finland or the UK shows. This is also beautifully seen in Brno, where the joint support of universities and the region has created the South Moravian Innovation Centre (JIC), around which several world-class companies have been established. And it is these small and medium-sized companies, not large corporations and assembly plants, that create value. Corporations are mainly trying to satisfy stock market numbers, not satisfy customers or create value. Often they don't even care about the customer. For innovation, a good command of English should be a given for the sake of communication with foreign countries, for collaboration, sharing and exchange of knowledge. I have also found that money is not so much needed for innovation, motivation, ideas and effort are much more needed, then the money will come.
Are Aguarra's efforts only in the field of agility training, or do you somehow also support the aforementioned breakthrough innovations and motivate people to do business?
We are not a typical training company providing soft skills training, language courses or training on the technology of new product versions, databases or programming languages. Rather, we carry out corporate transformations, the actual implementation of agility and of course we also provide the necessary training for this, which already requires a certain mental setup of the participants. Our other specificity is also that we do not reactively bring companies what they want now, but rather proactively offer what we perceive they need or will need in the near future. And therein lies the rub. Companies often don't know this themselves, so they don't see the need. This was one of the impulses to build the Agile Community: popularization, spreading awareness and successful examples. In my opinion, the consulting business in the country is more focused on how to sell consulting hours than how to solve a customer's problem and deliver value. It's sort of buying indulgences, especially from the big players.
What fascinates me is that despite all the mentioned limitations, you manage to get world agility leaders or even Nobel Prize winners to our regions. How did you do it?
When we started Aguarra and started doing training and corporate transformations, we taught ourselves other methods and techniques used around the world. Naturally, we thought of learning from the best. So we started inviting them to join us. The hardest part was getting started when no one knew us and people had little understanding of our concept and vision. We gradually approached these experts, sometimes we were successful, sometimes we were supported by well-known people, sometimes chance helped. To date, a large number of world-class experts have participated in our events, and since they know each other, they sometimes share their experiences with each other, which also helps us further. Recently we have been featured in articles in foreign media in Italy, Poland and the Netherlands. and this week a short report in Serbia. Getting world experts to come to us is easier now than before because we have some results behind us and we can show them. The problem is rather the busy calendars of these people and sometimes unrealistic financial expectations. What helps the most, and has probably been the key to success, is our way of communicating - I go to them and explain our needs to them personally. This way is more effective than explaining over the phone and it's also more human. For example, the star of this year's conference, Dave Snowden, only had 20 minutes to talk to me when changing trains at Paddington Station in London. There, in that short time, I had to find him and try to persuade him. And I did. Of course, I have a team of great colleagues who help me with all my events and projects. Without them, I would probably find it hard to do it on my own.
Michal, thank you for the interview and I wish you more and more companies that understand the need to create value and innovation for society.
Author of the interview: Jaroslav Procházka
Originally published on 26.07.2014 at web portal HR Kavárna