We talked to Rob Hoehn of IdeaScale about its idea management software and COVID-19.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Rob Hoehn: My family and I are doing well – constantly adapting in the age of COVID, which impacts all of us in different ways. As a founder and CEO, I’m thinking about how to best serve my employees during this time of uncertainty. My kids have been back and forth between in-person classes and remote learning. My wife actually works in healthcare and performs contact tracing for those in our community for those who have been exposed to COVID. In this way, although we are healthy, employed, and learning and are therefore lucky… Every single one of us is still impacted by COVID-19 on a daily basis.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded IdeaScale.
Rob Hoehn: I started the company ten years ago with my friends Vivek Bhaskaran, Jessica Day, and Josh Folk, because we kept hearing this question from our business contacts: “how are we supposed to get answers to the questions that we don’t know to ask?” Most of the tools for engagement at the time were surveys, which didn’t provide much in the way of qualitative feedback.
I was working at a large bank as a programmer and moonlighting on some start-up projects with Vivek. Josh was a White House intern who had started his own sports and technology company, and Jessica was a freelance marketer. So we really were just piecing IdeaScale together in the time that we had between our other projects. We were all starting out our careers at large companies, and all had the same frustration: we had tons of great ideas that never saw the light of day. It took years of working your way up inside a large company to be able to present ideas to senior leadership. We realized that good ideas come from everywhere, but large companies have a bias towards ideas from senior management.
I’m really fascinated by this idea of seeing into our blind spots – something that’s notoriously difficult to do as an individual but even harder to do as a company. We realized that if we could help organizations gather ideas from anywhere and strip away some of the ego or assumptions that go with ideas (who suggested the idea, where it came from, etc.), that we would be able to help companies start finding answers, not just to the questions that they knew to ask. But it couldn’t just be a suggestion box – it needed features that would allow anyone to help select the best idea, improve it, and move it forward.
How does IdeaScale innovate?
Rob Hoehn: Well, IdeaScale is idea management software for the enterprise and government. This means that we’re constantly serving our customers who are trying to improve, adapt, and transform. We apply all of those same business practices to our company even though we’re a small start-up.
The belief that the best ideas can come from anywhere is built into our core values. It means that although we trust our leaders to set strategy and make decisions, we don’t believe that hierarchy should dictate the relevance of a good idea. We offer our employees the freedom to suggest, prototype, explore, fail, share, and succeed. If it’s something that they have tested out, then we’ll scale it across the company. If it doesn’t, we’ll be grateful that they were willing to put their time on the line to try something new. That is what every one of our community members risks when they share an idea.
For example, when one of our employees wanted to start out a diversity-focused scholarship and internship program, we paired her with an executive to pilot the program and let her run with it. Or when we were looking for new ideas for how to increase participation in our software, one of our employees floated a new concept called “kudos,” which is incredibly popular with our users.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Rob Hoehn: Coronavirus has had a dual impact on our company. We work in the innovation space, which is future-focused and requires creative thinking. For companies experiencing extreme change and unpredictability, their focus has shifted from future-thinking to day-to-day operations, and we’re seeing attention shifts away from our tool. Other companies, however, are realizing that they need new ideas and innovative approaches to their business more than ever before. Those companies are turning to innovation and their innovation departments to help adapt and pivot in response to this crisis, and they are relying on IdeaScale more than ever to fuel the future of their business.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Rob Hoehn: We created two plans after COVID-19 sent our company into lockdown: one plan that asked for immediate opportunities to save money (in this case, we decided to lean into remote work and just cancel our in-person offices for the foreseeable future) and a second plan that included cuts to our budget in case we started to depart drastically from our plan. So far, we haven’t had to implement that second plan, but one of the benefits of doing so is that it gave everyone in our company insight into what might happen. So if we had to cancel some of our marketing programs or reduce salaries (for example), everyone could anticipate when it would happen and understand why.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and IdeaScale in the future?
Rob Hoehn: Positivity and optimism is nothing less than a superpower these days. If we lose a customer or prospect, we don’t let it define our mood for the future. We absorb it, learn from it, and then focus on what’s next. I remain immensely proud of our team and our product, and that desire to honor our work is what keeps us moving forward.
We’ve also made some investments to help anyone who might be feeling stress or anxiety or disconnected during this time: every month, we have a “town hall” style meeting where we report on projects and business goals to the whole company. During this meeting, we also have a segment that features one employee answering the same 19 personal questions (what would your “death row” meal be, do you press snooze or wake up on time, etc.). It really helps to shine a spotlight on each team individual and get a sense of who they are behind the work. There’s also an app called “donut,” which randomly pairs people in an organization together for 30-minute meetings (suggesting times based on the calendar, etc.). This random assignment happens every few weeks, and our team members all have one-to-one meetings with each other, whether they work with one another or not.
Also, an employee of the month may sound cheesy, but people have really responded to it. We offer a prize, but what’s really great is that we create a special Slack thread ahead of time that everyone in the company has access to except the honoree. We all write nice things about that person – how great it is to work with them, what they excel at, and our favorite memories. Then, when we announce who the employee is in our monthly town hall, we invite them to that Slack thread so that they can see all the wonderful things that people have written about them.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Rob Hoehn: There are numerous players in the innovation space: from BrightIdea to Wazoku, but if the intellectual property and system security are important to you, IdeaScale builds with a security-first mindset and is the only innovation management software that has achieved FedRAMP level security accreditation. FedRAMP is a demanding process that calls for the compliance of over three hundred NIST SP 800-53 security controls and the constant assurance to agency customers that the government’s strict security standards are being met. As a result, IdeaScale is constantly reviewing, developing, and fortifying all of its security controls, policies, and procedures.
That isn’t the only difference, though – our attitude is one of advocacy and flexibility for our customers. In short, we try to remove all barriers to good ideas being heard… no matter what that looks like. For example, our accessibility mindset has given us unique feature components like Section 508 capabilities out of the box or crowd-validated real-time translation, but we also want to empower people and process, and that’s led to our focus on building a community of practice: digital roundtables, peer matchmaking, exclusive, in-person events, an active LinkedIn group, and more. But really it’s about finding out what you need to create positive change in your system and configuring our team and solution around that.
Your final thoughts?
These are the times that will define our businesses for years to come. A company’s ability to pivot, create new offerings, join in the fight that is being fought on the frontlines by healthcare workers, as well as grocers, delivery persons, and others… this will shape us after the pandemic. As we plan for that future, if the innovation team is not involved in the COVID-adaptation strategy, it’s a missed opportunity. After all, you’ve got a willing crowd who wants to help. They can generate novel respirators, co-create new work from home policies, aid in delivery pattern recognition, and more. Innovation teams already have the skill set necessary to organize that enthusiasm and deliver on those ideas in rapid fashion. If you haven’t already offered to collaborate with your leaders, do so now.
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