Leading Innovation Through Crises With Dr. Stephen Tang

We’re persevering with our sequence of interviews with main innovation specialists. This time we’re interviewing Dr. Stephen Tang on main via crises and embracing innovation within the technique of doing so.

He initially earned a PhD in Chemical Engineering and later added an MBA from Wharton, and he has an extended and storied profession spanning over three many years. He’s been an entrepreneur, advisor, company government, board skilled, and much more. 

Could You Inform Our Listeners Extra About Your Self And Your Background?

Dr. Tang: It’s a pleasure to be right here with you and your innovation viewers, very expensive to my coronary heart for a few years.

I’m an American, however I’m the son of immigrants. My mother and father fled war-torn China after World War Two to make a brand new house right here in America.

My late father was a fellow PhD chemical engineer, my mom is a scientist, so I grew up in a really “sciency” engineering increased schooling form of setting. But I say that to not be intellectual inaccessible. I simply assume that the curiosity, the seek for information and the linking of disciplines collectively have been key to my upbringing.

As the son of immigrants, and particular person of coloration, I used to be very a lot used to rising up as an outsider and that formed my perspective each as an innovator and an entrepreneur.

I’m an incredible believer that the immigrants’ pathway of their new nation could be very intently aligned with the innovators’ and the entrepreneurs’ pathway, attempting to interrupt new floor and new areas and doing the sudden.

All these issues have formed my perspective and worldview. Your very beneficiant introduction highlights the truth that I’ve been lucky to be in management roles for a few years in my profession since graduating school with a level in chemistry earlier than the PhD in chemical engineering and the MBA from Wharton began 40 years in the past. I’ve been lucky that over these 40 years, I’ve served the CEO function, the chairman or the founder function for 33 mixed years.

That spans numerous industries from skilled companies, administration consulting particularly. I used to be an power expertise entrepreneur and spent a whole lot of years within the life science business as an entrepreneur supporting entrepreneurs via non-profit after which really being on the frontline within the firing line, within the enviornment, so to talk as an entrepreneur myself.

I see the world clearly from the view of a call maker and from a company governance perspective. I believe quite a bit about how my life experiences have impacted my view of innovation and what innovators can do to advocate for their very own trigger, however perceive how determination makers consider issues.

Our Viewers Is Usually Company Innovators, And Also You’ve Clearly Spent Many Years Main Innovation Within The Company World. Why Do You Assume It’s So Difficult For Many Organizations?

Dr. Tang: Well, I’m going to a elementary definition, of technique. I believe it’s lengthy been glorified, useful resource intensive, and costly workout routines, technique formulation for corporations.

I’d boil it right down to this: the technique is the overlap of alternatives and capabilities.

I believe if anyone in an organization views technique in that method, then you definately’re pondering already by way of an innovators world. Innovators consider ”what can I do nicely and what does the world want and the way will we become profitable off of it”.

That easy confluence units the stage for the way innovators can align with company executives. You have to have the ability to converse a standard language and I believe that technique as alternative overlapping functionality makes a whole lot of sense.

Now, it isn’t a static evaluation. Our capabilities change over instances and our alternatives change over time. We’ll get into it slightly later, I’m certain.

I’m predicting that the subsequent regular for all of us will probably be stuffed with crises that we will have to regulate to. I believe the pre-pandemic technique was seen extra as gospel and immutable. Post-pandemic, the place we’re right this moment, and shifting into the subsequent regular, it must be way more versatile.

So, if innovators may converse that language of technique and converse by way of how our capabilities are altering, what we’d like for funding and the way the alternatives are shifting larger or smaller over time, I believe we might all have higher concord and alignment in direction of a method in direction of the execution of it.

With That, I Need To Dive Proper In And Ask You About Your Time At OraSure. You Have Been In Cost When Covid-19 Grew To Become A Pandemic. Given The Sphere That You Simply Have Been In, I’m Certain You Noticed A Whole Lot Of Alternative To Be Captured, But Additionally A Whole Lot Of Dangers. What Have Been You Pondering And The Way Did You React?

I’ll attempt to provide you with solutions in bite-sized chunks. As you recognize, I’ve I’ve written a e-book known as “A Test for Our Time: Crisis Leadership in the Next Normal”, which is an account, a memoir with a whole lot of classes about what it is like to guide an organization throughout a pandemic.

Just to provide a quick background, OraSure applied sciences was based 35 years in the past and went public 20 years in the past.

The pandemic actually centered our consideration and our technique, which meant alternatives and capabilities on creating an in-home COVID-19 take a look at. IntelliSwab, which Oprah Winfrey graciously stated is the simplest house COVID-19 take a look at to make use of in America, was our nice breakthrough product.

We additionally do different issues. There’s an organization within the states Called 23andMe and so they make DNA assessments and we additionally make the saliva assortment equipment to go along with that. We had latent functionality, and the corporate was an innovator all through its existence. It really developed the first in house HIV take a look at that hit the market in 2012.

Oddly, between 2012 and the pandemic in 2020, there have been no different house assessments that the FDA permitted for infectious illnesses. So, we had latent functionality however a reasonably restricted market.

The story of OraSure is how we grew to become an organization that in our whole 20-year public firm existence offered about 80 million assessments, most of these HIV assessments, to ramping up to have the ability to produce InteliSwab on the fee of 100 million assessments per 12 months.

Think of that. Before the pandemic, you have been in an organization that offered 80 million assessments over its twenty 12 months existence. Now, in case you’re working for OraSure, you’re employed for an organization that sells greater than that each single 12 months.

The breakthrough in innovation was first discovering the product, then decreasing it to observe after which scaling it up massively, which required not solely the dimensions up of bodily amenities and equipment, however functionality as nicely. All that was carried out in a backdrop, as everyone knows of a harmful pandemic, the place many individuals have been remoted at house, and those who got here into the amenities needed to be protected.

You have that very unusual dichotomy and paradox the place earlier than the pandemic most individuals would have stated that this might not be carried out as a result of to have innovation you need to convey individuals collectively earlier than they’ll really create merchandise on a large scale.

There are some attention-grabbing classes that we discovered, that as leaders we needed to handle as we went alongside. There was no textbook for managing a pandemic and a disaster on this explicit method, so it was each pleasant and satisfying and terrifying at instances.

When The Pandemic First Started, How Did You Pull The Group Collectively? What Have Been You Fascinated About And And The Way Did You Begin The Transformation?

Dr. Tang: One Of Probably The Most Misunderstood Issues About Innovation, As You And Your Viewers Know, Is That Many Of The World Believes That Innovation Occurs Inside Archimedes Sort Second. “Eureka, We Found It”, However The Truth Is It Is A Whole Lot Of Laborious Work Over An Extended Time Period That Most Individuals Do Not See.

In the case of OraSure I credit score our diagnostics R&D group led by Doctor Jody Berry, who’s a really proficient immunologist, Canadian by background.

One Of Probably The Most Misunderstood Issues About Innovation, As You And Your Viewers Know, Is That Many Of The World Believes That Innovation Occurs Inside Archimedes Sort Second. “Eureka, We Found It”, However The Truth Is It Is A Whole Lot Of Laborious Work Over An Extended Time Period That Most Individuals Do Not See.

He and his group had scoured the literature to know what this explicit SARS- COVID virus was all about and the way it was going to be completely different than earlier SARS viruses. They efficiently made the case to determination makers, together with myself, that this was one thing we must always pursue. It can be a sport changer. Even although it wasn’t in our current technique or current budgets.

That problem has a number of dimensions. There’s a scientific dimension, within the phrases of Mark Watney, the astronaut from the Martian, we knew ”we needed to science the *** out of this.” But he additionally needed to persuade determination makers like myself that we would have liked to pivot our time, consideration and our budgets into one thing else.

All these issues collectively type of laid the groundwork for the way we started. There have been many twists and turns. One of them was that we thought to start with that the take a look at was going to be utilizing saliva as the tactic of detecting the virus, however the Coronavirus would not cooperate.


Coronavirus desires to exist within the nostril, and we needed to pivot right into a take a look at that included a nasal swab in our product to have the ability to pattern there. There’s a whole lot of room to speak in regards to the sudden and the unexpected and what really occurred to have the ability to pivot and alter to all these points, technical, managerial, but additionally political and social.

Thinking About All Of These Challenges That You Simply Needed To Overcome, What Do You Assume Have Been A Few Of The The Largest Ones That That You Simply Weren’t Anticipating?

Dr. Tang: There have been actually technical challenges as I discussed, however we have been additionally coping with a regulatory physique, the FDA which was working underneath emergency use authorization versus their customary method of approving merchandise.

They have been primarily creating these as they went alongside. If you return to technique being functionality over alternative, the chance remained massive however the functionality to get to that chance shifted very a lot over time as a result of all people was attempting to make changes to the pandemic.

If you bear in mind the best way that leaders all over the world have been speaking in regards to the virus, not certainly one of them had it proper from the outset and most of them had it fallacious on a unbroken foundation.

We needed to get individuals centered on the duty at hand with out being distracted by what was happening within the exterior. I bear in mind early on as we have been making the choices there was a wholesome dose of those who believed this was going to go shortly and that we should not commit our time and a focus to it.

What leaders and innovators should do is is sensible of a really difficult world with a whole lot of info that’s conflicting alongside the best way.

Lastly, I believe scaling this up in a producing setting, we needed to make the investments to arrange the amenities, to create the amenities, to order the machines and equipments and the automation traces nicely forward of realizing whether or not we may really do that nicely. There was a threat of doing that. There’s a scale up challenges that you simply face to convey a product to the market.

So the place will we begin?

There have been challenges all through that whole course of and the group needed to reply by scaling up its capabilities from R&D to the standard capabilities, to the regulatory capabilities, to the medical testing capabilities, all the best way to manufacturing after which advertising and past.

You see that ripple impact all through the group the place all people needed to do their job and be aligned by way of timing and goal alongside the best way.

I believe it is a problem as soon as in a lifetime, as soon as in a era for all of us. I believe the essential factor is that these of us that went via it should acknowledge what went proper and what went fallacious, and what may have carried out higher to arrange ourselves for future challenges.

I Do Know That You Simply’re At The Moment Engaged On A E-book Relating To Management Throughout A Disaster. Can You Give Us A Fast Sneak Peek Into A Few Of The Prime Classes You’ve Discovered On Main Via Crises?

Dr. Tang: I believe there are a number of classes, however this finally ends up being a profoundly human story. It’s about technique, merchandise, the pandemic, but it surely’s actually about individuals. The largest studying for me was that as leaders, we have to lead all individuals wholeheartedly. We can not assume that individuals come into their jobs and may deal with their jobs once they have so many different issues happening of their life.

The pandemic introduced that to the entrance and heart. We had individuals working with their spouses who could have additionally been working with kids who have been attending college remotely multi functional, constructing: their house. 24/7, 7 days per week, 12 months a 12 months for over 2 years.

I believe leaders ought to be aware of that. To get individuals to work collectively, they first should acknowledge that these individuals have challenges in their very own lives. That’s the entire individuals a part of it.

The wholehearted a part of it comes right down to the essential belief system, which I discovered a few years in the past once I was with Gemini Consulting. That is belief is the same as credibility instances intimacy divided by threat.

Let me unpack that.

At any given second, credibility means there is no hole between what you say and what you do. ”I imagine you, I belief you since you’re able to doing it.”
Intimacy is ”I belief you as a result of you’ve my again.”

In instances the place you’ve profound threat throughout a pandemic, that is the denominator threat. If threat is excessive, that signifies that credibility and intimacy should be equally excessive to take care of the identical degree of belief. What which means essentially is that individuals should imagine that you simply care about them earlier than they will care in regards to the trigger.

So a lot has been written about organizations having goal and mission. I believe at a really human private degree, leaders should be sure that their individuals imagine that their leaders have their greatest pursuits, their well being and their security first earlier than they’ll decide to working more durable on dangerous initiatives that will not have the outcomes and the time that we expect they’ll.

Fundamentally, that is what it means. It’s about compassion, but it surely’s additionally about accountability and empowerment and engagement.

team leader

The very counterintuitive a part of the management equation right here is that to be able to get individuals to work collectively nicely in many various places, whether or not they’re distant or they’re within the workplace or they’re in a laboratory or within the manufacturing facility, it is advisable to empower them. You want to provide them the data they’ll to make the choices as shortly as attainable, as greatest as attainable to get them there.

There are so many analogies I consider. In navy environments, the place that is been the distinction. If you take a look at house exploration, you take a look at the energy disaster, you take a look at the best way we painting science fiction films. What it actually comes right down to, is it is advisable to belief individuals to do their greatest for you. The greatest method to try this is to point out that, to earn the respect and belief of them in instances of disaster.

That’s essentially what what we discovered via the disaster.

You Have Been Already Speaking About Making The Case To Executives And I Believe That Is An Enormous Problem That A Whole Lot Of Our Viewers Is Intimately Conversant In.

As Somebody Who’s Seen Pitches And Given Your Fair Proportion Of Rejections For Modern Proposals As Nicely, What’s Your Tackle That And The Way Would You Advise Individuals To Make Their Level In Order That It It Will Get Via?

Dr. Tang: Well, we’re in a really unusual time, as as you recognize there are numerous crises which might be upon us. I imagine that the pandemic just isn’t but over. In the northern hemisphere, we’re getting into winter. We’re undecided what’s going to occur right here. We ought to all be cautious.

We have a world financial disaster. We have a warfare in Europe, now we have an power disaster in Europe. Many issues issue into uncertainty and enterprise craves predictability however we do not have predictability proper now.

Leaders left in uncertainty and ambiguity will are inclined to attempt to management the state of affairs as a lot as attainable and so they do this sometimes via budgets. It actually causes leaders in innovation and people selling and advocating modern initiatives to essentially sharpen their pencil of their method.

I believe the truth of the state of affairs proper now’s that in case you’re alternatives, overlapping functionality, in case you’re asking leaders to spend money on capabilities which have a long term horizon, that is going to be much less prone to occur simply because they are going to be very quick time period centered and preserving sources.


If you occur to work for an organization that is a bit extra progressive of their pondering and have the sources to speculate you may take a special method although, which says that this can be a sound use of funding underneath the next situations.


I believe that leaders all the time respect proposals which have contingency plans behind them. In distinction to ”this is my one reply, take it or depart it” in instances of uncertainty and ambiguity, it is good to have a portfolio of choices.

Because issues may change for the higher or worse in a short time today, I believe it is crucial that you simply domesticate a relationship with the choice makers which supplies them worth over time.

I’ll return to my instance of how my R&D group in diagnostics have been the early warning system about SARS COV 2 and the way it was going to be completely different than different SARS viruses.

So, be that supply of knowledge to tell your determination makers. Keep them on prime of their sport, to allow them to provide help to keep on prime of your sport. I believe that is the form of trade and method that I’d suggest.

If You Then Take Into Consideration The Sensible Challenges In Attempting To Get These Initiatives To Completion And Creating That Worth Throughout Such Instances Of Disaster. What Are A Few Of The Classes That You Simply Might Need Discovered On That Alongside The Years?

Dr. Tang: I believe it may be an attention-grabbing portfolio of initiatives that call makers will take a look at. It’s not a static view of simply the breakthrough services or products. I believe that is a too slim view of the place improvements are going to occur.

If you take a look at the provision chain challenges right this moment, and the assumptions that have been made earlier than the pandemic, when all people was centered on just-in-time, with little or no slack or contingency within the provide chain, now that has been fully rethought. The disaster within the Suez Canal in March of 2021 it is emblematic of how issues can go fallacious shortly and have an effect on so many individuals.

The name for innovation goes to return from throughout organizations, not simply from R&D and never simply from individuals carrying white lab coats. It’s going to be all through the companies. I believe there is a reawakening of what innovation means to an enterprise.

From buying to manufacturing, to fulfilment, that offer chain must be
intently watched. The alternatives for automation and for consensus planning are there as nicely.

There should be, from a call makers perspective, competitors within the group for innovation throughout the enterprise. I believe that is a wholesome factor for everyone. Those in product growth want to pay attention to that as a result of that is the best way determination makers will probably be pondering today.

If You Concentrate On R&D Or Innovation Groups Or Items, Ought To In Addition They Be Fascinated About The Larger Image And Contributing Proactively In Direction Of These Different Areas Of The Enterprise? How Do You See The Connection Between Innovation Or R&D And The Opposite Groups?

In instances of crises, of uncertainty and ambiguity, determination makers wish to see threat distributed. They they do not like all-in form of selections. Those within the R&D setting who labored intently with company growth and enterprise growth can have a bonus.

In different phrases, in case you cultivated partnership and alliances earlier than the pandemic and may leverage these now going ahead into this subsequent regular, which goes to be disaster laden, I believe you are going to be significantly better off.

The diploma of sharing threat all through the method I believe will serve product builders and folk in R&D nicely. That consists of working with universities or different non-profit entities which have functionality that you do not have, the place you can also make the case for funding exterior of your group slightly than bringing on employees.

That sounds way more versatile to determination makers. The potential to companion with different business companions goes to be essential as nicely. It’s going to depend on the resourcefulness of the R&D personnel to assist make the case for this sort of versatile funding over time.

I’ve Been Studying Your Weblog Submit And Also You’ve Talked Quite A Bit In Regards To The Unknown And Ambiguity, And These Subjects Actually Struck A Chord With Me. They’re One Thing Each Innovator That’s Attempting To Create One Thing New And Each Chief That’s Seeking To Steer Their Group In Direction Of A Greater Future Is All Too Conversant In, And It’s Very Easy To Both Go In Headfirst, Or To Be Paralyzed And Never Do Something.

How Have You Ever Balanced This As A Pacesetter?

Dr. Tang: I believe it begins on the prime. You have to take a look at how the method of approving methods and budgets really occurs. For a time period, you would look forward and have a price range over 12 months and in case you may have a strategic plan for 5 years, that was significant.

These days, with excessive ambiguity and uncertainty and plenty of unexpected circumstances, that will not even be attainable. It could not even be well worth the funding to try this with issues shifting so shortly.

If you start on the prime, then the highest executives should work with the governance of their group, their board of administrators, for instance, and give you a versatile method of allocating sources.

Maybe it is solely quarterly, perhaps it is lower than 1 / 4, perhaps it is month-to-month, however you need to have that settlement in place. If you do not have that settlement in place, it’s totally probably there will be disconnects between what was forecasted over a time horizon, which was unreasonable and the outcomes you are really going to get.

I believe that step from prime executives offers the group way more flexibility. Again, it goes to the belief equation. If I do know my CEO has my again and that he is invested in me as a result of he is aware of and trusts my functionality, then you’ve a excessive diploma of alignment and you are able to do nice issues collectively.

That’s the place I’d focus. I believe there are some brave leaders on the market who’re ready to try this. The tough factor is if you find yourself a public firm and also you’re reporting quarterly earnings. There is a few mythology today that someway as a result of you may declare a quantity 1 / 4 out, that you recognize greater than the market does.

The actuality of it’s that no person is aware of greater than the market, what the circumstances are right this moment and it virtually requires that flexibility from determination makers. That’s a spot I’d deal with.

This Is Sage Recommendation, Simply Preserving The Flexibleness And As You Talked About Earlier In Regards To The Provide Chains, Making A Bit Extra antifragility In Direction Of That, Then Having The Identical Governance And Remaining Versatile.

Dr. Tang: I like that idea of antifragility. Things turn out to be stronger underneath stress. That’s why our bones get stronger with train, that is why corporations like OraSure received stronger throughout the pandemic. Those have been shiny examples. I believe that we have to convey extra consciousness, so that individuals see how that truly works.

The tendency is to focus simply on resiliency however not understanding which you could get stronger throughout crises, throughout stress. I believe it is a thoughts shift change that that we collectively have to have.

In Your Expertise, What Are A Few Of The Greatest Methods For A Pacesetter To Essentially Create An Setting The Place Innovation Thrives? Any Sensible Recommendation For Our Listeners?

Dr. Tang: I’m a fan of Victor Hwang’s e-book, The Rainforest, which was printed 10 years in the past.

Organizers of innovation cultures or innovation ecosystems could be a group.
I’ve labored as a group activist and organizer in Philadelphia to create an innovation ecosystem there via the University City Science Center. I did that for 10 years. But I believe the identical rules will be utilized to company tradition as nicely.

You should view innovation as a rainforest and invite the biodiversity that is required in a rainforest to create lush life and vibrancy.


It’s not all good as a result of in case you go right down to the Amazon, there are numerous unique animals. As a promoter of an innovation tradition, I believe you need to have a sure tolerance for these unexpected components.

This is the place a whole lot of corporations get it fallacious. They attempt to homogenize the tradition and do not permit for the quirkiness of innovators who is perhaps outliers, or outsiders, to have the ability to contribute to the mission of the corporate.

I believe as determination makers now we have to acknowledge that there should be a tolerance, which signifies that you are all the time going to have conditions the place any person does not like any person, that any person thinks any person’s doing one thing the fallacious method.

To have some tolerance for that and to have the ability to have a reference to all these individuals with out bias to the best way we’re used to doing issues, there must be stability between constructing new capabilities and new views, which is a range piece, and recognition of the energy of our custom. Sometimes these components are at odds with one another, however in case you’re actually going to advertise innovation, I believe it is advisable to be very acutely aware of that and promote and advance the variety piece of it.

Any Closing Ideas You’d Wish To Share With Our Fellow Innovators And Innovation Leaders, What To Essentially Focus And Take Away From From Our Dialogue Right This Moment?

We’ve lined a whole lot of floor.

I believe that at its coronary heart, innovation is about with the ability to sense and make sense of the world right this moment and the place it is going. I hope we, as a society by no means lose that thirst and that curiosity of doing so.

If you promote accountability, compassion, empowerment, and engagement, you may have an modern tradition, an modern firm that’s really antifragile, and will get stronger with the stress over time.


I believe that we will should confront many extra crises within the subsequent regular. That will create alternative on a rolling foundation for those who see the chance, can deal with it, can useful resource it and may accomplish it.

All these issues are wrapped up on this notion of ambiguity and uncertainty. It will probably be a profound management take a look at going ahead to convey all these components collectively. It’s not a hypothetical train. Leadership entails incomes the belief of others and the respect of others.

I come again to the belief system. Trust is the same as credibility instances intimacy divided by threat. You received to have individuals’s again, and to haven’t any hole between what you do and what you say or what you count on them to do and say as nicely.

Ultimately, it comes right down to main entire individuals wholeheartedly. If you promote accountability, compassion, empowerment, and engagement, you may have an modern tradition, an modern firm that’s really antifragile, and will get stronger with the stress over time.

Interested In Innovation And Leadership?

Join 90k+ different month-to-month readers and subscribe to our weblog to get the newest tales on innovation, management and tradition straight to your inbox.

Source: www.viima.com

Leave a Comment