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Meet Rob Hoehn, CEO, IdeaScale – Adapting is the New Normal

Today we have selected Rob Hoehn to take his interview.

Rob Hoehn is the co-founder and CEO of IdeaScale – leading idea management software for the enterprise and government. IdeaScale empowers organizations to crowdsource ideas from their employees or customers, collaborating, evaluating, and further developing them into products, processes, and new initiatives. IdeaScale has been consistently recognized as a top solution by industry analysts at Gartner, Forrester, and others.

IdeaScale’s client roster includes IKEA, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Doctors Without Borders, Freddie Mac, Marriott Vacations Worldwide, NASA, the United Way, the US Air Force, and many others.

Before IdeaScale, Hoehn was a co-founder of QuestionPro, an insight technology company, where he helped launch the company in its early stages.

He also regularly speaks about climate change and lives with his wife, two kids, and husky in Berkeley, CA. He holds a BS in Computer Science from the University of Vermont.

First of all, how are you and your team doing in these COVID-19 times?

Everyone at IdeaScale is doing well – COVID has meant that we have spent the past two years in adaptation mode, which impacts all of us differently. As a founder and CEO, I’m thinking about what it means to build a product that helps others to plan for uncertain times like this.

They say that innovation (and consequently, IdeaScale) will help organizations stay relevant in a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) world, so we are building new templates that create a standard approach to change… but since change looks different to so many different organizations, it’s hard to create a recipe. We’re also paying close attention to best serving our employees during this recovery period. … Every single one of us is still impacted by COVID-19 daily.

Tell us about your career and how you founded or joined this company?

I started the company ten years ago with my friends Jessica Day, Josh Folk, and Vivek. We persistently heard this request from our friends: “how are we supposed to get answers to the questions that we don’t know to ask?” Most of the tools for feedback were surveys, which didn’t provide much interactive, qualitative information.

I worked as a programmer at a big bank and then moonlighted as a start-up founder with Vivek. Josh was a White House intern who had started his sports and technology company, and Jessica was a freelance marketer. We were piecing IdeaScale together in the time we had between our other projects.

We were all starting 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 working your way up inside a large company 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.

This made us think about seeing into our blind spots – it’s notoriously difficult to do as an individual (just read about the Dunning-Kruger effect). Still, it’s even harder to identify as an organization. We thought if we could help organizations gather ideas from anyone and strip away some of the ego or assumptions that go alongside ideas (so that people stopped paying attention to who suggested the idea, where it came from, etc.), we would be able to help companies start finding answers that they hadn’t expected and judging them on their merit.

How does your company innovate?

IdeaScale is innovation management software, so we serve our customers trying to improve, adapt, and transform. We apply these best practices to our company because that helps keep us fresh and build our customer empathy.

The belief that the best ideas can come from anywhere is built into our core values. Even though we trust our leaders to create a vision and make decisions, we don’t believe that hierarchy should dictate whether a good idea is implemented or not. We offer 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. If it doesn’t, we’ll be grateful for the lesson learned, and (if it’s reasonable) we’ll revisit it at a future date.

For example, when we launched a diversity-focused scholarship and internship program, we paired one of our emerging leaders, Chrystal Banks, with an executive to pilot the program and let her run with it. Or, when we were looking for new ideas for increasing 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?

Well, COVID impacted our company in a few ways. For example, it accelerated the digital transformation as many new companies realized that gathering ideas in meetings and on the post wasn’t going to work anymore. Also, for many companies who experienced extreme change and unpredictability, their focus shifted from future-thinking to day-to-day operations, when they should be spending more time thinking about their future and finding new opportunities in open spaces. The companies turning to innovation and their innovation departments to help adapt and pivot in response to this crisis exceed their competitors’ performance.

Did you have to make difficult choices and the lessons learned?

We created two plans after the pandemic put our company into lockdown: one plan focused on immediate opportunities to save money (in this case, we unloaded our in-person offices for the known future) and a second plan that included cuts to our budget in case we started to depart drastically from our plan.

We never had to get to the second line of defense, but it helped everyone pay attention to our bottom line and how they could help our company succeed. If we ever needed to cancel some of our marketing tactics or reduce headcount (for example), everyone understood why that was happening.

What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?

We made the biggest switch to getting our team on the same project management software: ClickUp. Before everyone used their solution, we couldn’t see what people were working on and how huge, cross-functional projects were progressing, so we got everyone on the same system and created a shared view. We can see how leaders manage our company strategy shift across the company.

Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?

There are numerous players in the innovation space: from Hype to Crowdicity, but IdeaScale stands apart because of our security-first mindset and has achieved FedRAMP level security accreditation. If you’re unfamiliar, FedRAMP is a stringent process that calls for the compliance of over three hundred security controls and the constant assurance to agency customers that the government’s strict security standards are being met. As a result, IdeaScale constantly reviews, develops, and fortifies 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 ensuring that everyone can achieve access no matter where they are in the world, that they can participate no matter what language they speak, and that their idea can gain traction no matter what their background is. Our customer success approach defines success and configures our team and solution around that.

Your final thoughts:

Years like 2020 and 2021 define our businesses for years to come. We have pivoted, created new offerings, skinned our operating costs, and even tweaked our business model and pricing. As we plan for that future, it’s a missed opportunity if the innovation team is not involved in future strategy planning. After all, engaging your workforce gives them purpose and makes them part of the solution.

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 rapidly deliver on those ideas – let them help you prepare for the uncertain but exciting future.

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