Jorma and Jack Give a Lesson in Collaboration

Okay, so you’ve been playing a song one way for a couple of generations, and then someone suggests, “How about adding a sousaphone solo?”

If you are Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady – two legendary rock stars performing together since the early 1960s – you go for it. The duo was performing what had become a standard tune for them, “Good Shepherd” After each had soloed and riffed a bit, a horn player stepped up to a side stage microphone and soloed. The effect was magical, giving the Biblical-themed song a jazz-themed twist.

Good Shepherd,” recorded by Jimmy Strothers — a blind convict in Virginia imprisoned for accidentally shooting his wife, who had been abusing him. The traditional hymn focuses on salvation by caring for one another. Strothers’ version includes references to the marauding savagery of the Ku Klux Klan. The effect of the horn — with Kaukonen on guitar and Casady on bass in accompaniment — underscores the beauty and poignancy of the melody.

Power of friendship

Watching this performance on YouTube, something else struck me: friendship. Kaukonnen is in his early eighties, and Casady is nearing eighty, but watching them perform, you could see the same spark of collaboration that bound them together as teens. Kaukonnen invited Casady to join The Jefferson Airplane, a group that achieved superstardom in the late Sixties. Together with the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin – and so many other bands – the Airplane defined that era’s San Francisco rock scene.

Kaukonen and Casady formed Hot Tuna as a blues band concurrently with their years in the Airplane. It became their avenue for exploring the blues, country, and folk. Call it a passion project. And its passion burns brightly because it is still touring now – albeit on their final electric tour. 

Lessons to keep in mind

What we can learn from the band are a few lessons.

Remember the mission. Know what you stand for and build upon that as a foundation. 

Evolve when necessary. Times change, as do situations. Adapt when necessary in ways that complement your mission.

Keep experimenting. Try something new. Use the newness as a challenge and a way to invigorate yourself and the mission.

Joy of collaboration

And finally, what strikes me most when watching Jorma and Jack perform together is their respect for each other. Jorma on vocals and lead (or solo) guitar, and Jack on an often oversized bass of his creation. They complement one another in ways that harmonize their sound into something that demonstrates their deep connection. They are true collaborators.

And so it is fitting to close by citing the lyrics of the Strothers’ version of “Good Shepherd” – a plea for all of us to watch out for one another – as good colleagues do. 

If you want to get to heaven

… Over on, the other shore

Stay out of the way of the blood-stained bandit —

Oh, good shepherd,

Feed my sheep.

One for Paul, one for Silas …

One for to make, my heart rejoice.

Can’t you hear, my lambs, a callin’?

Oh, good shepherd,

Feed my sheep.

First posted on on 00.00.2023

Integrating the Leadership Equation into AI

While AI has been with us for 15 years or more, what is capturing attention is generative AI, the ability to compile information, sort it, and turn it into something creative. Think of it as 1+1 = 3. Or in a short time 1+1 = 5, 7, 9 and up.

To get a handle on where AI is headed in the workplace, I called on Mahesh M. Thakur, a long-time tech leader and now working as an executive coach to senior leaders. Mahesh began his career as a coder working in the banking industry. Back then skeptics thought internet banking would replace brick and mortar banks. That did not happen. As Mahesh explained to me, it enabled tellers to move the window to a cubicle where with more training they could become financial advisors.

AI enablement

Mahesh sees something similar happening with AI. While AI has the power to displace workers, it also has the capacity to provide employees with tools they can use to become more skilled and thus more valuable to their employers. For example, using AI managers can apply their cognitive abilities more effectively when it comes to decision-making.

Mahesh advises clients on how to integrate AI into their work flow. In particular he shows them how AI can enhance search results for Bing, which serves 1.3 Billion visitors per month. 

Culture is essential to successful use of AI. Empathy, as Mahesh explains, is necessary to make employees feel understood as well as knowledgeable about AI. When fear of the new is eroded, the enterprise can create conditions where employees use AI to enhance their skills.

“You’ve got to step back and first be very clear, very articulate about what is your business goal and then help then partner with your CTO, with your technology advisors on how exactly will you use AI to reach that goal,” says Mahesh. 

Learn by doing

Experimentation becomes the norm. “Everything becomes a test run, a series of tests to figure out what is working and what more importantly what is not working. When I work with CEOs, I help them understand how to be clear about those business goals and how to be clear about their AI enabled strategy.” From there the company can proceed with experimentation within the goals they set.

One example of experimentation comes from the Mars Company. When it introduced its product line into China and via Alibaba, the search engine cum-marketplace, it discovered via data from multiple sources that customers who bought Snickers also brought savory or salty snacks. Acting quickly, Mars created Spicy Snickers and soon the new product accounted for a significant portion of the company’s revenues in China. 

AI means re-skilling

According to the lead article in the September-October 2023 issue of the Harvard Business Review, “To design and implement ambitious reskilling programs, companies must do a lot more than just train employees: They must create an organizational context conducive to success. To do that they need to ensure the right mindset and behaviors among employees and managers alike. From this perspective, reskilling is akin to a change-management initiative, because it requires a focus on many different tasks simultaneously.”

IBM economist Martin Fleming, also contributing to HBR, writes, “As tasks requiring intellectual skill, insight and other uniquely human attributes rise in value, executives and managers will also need to focus on preparing workers for the future by fostering and growing ‘people skills,’ such as judgement, creativity and the ability to communicate effectively. Through such efforts, leaders can help their employees make the shift to partnering with intelligent machines as tasks transform and change in value.”

Know the risks

AI is not without risks. It can give false information, or as Mahesh says, “hallucinate.” As with all technology there are growing pains. Therefore, it is imperative that those working in the field continue to perfect it through relentless experimentation based upon feedback from end-users.

AI can be used to improve efficiency, but it can also be applied to give employees more skills, choices and ultimately more autonomy. As Mahesh told me, “What all of us need to do, in whatever field we work — whether we like it, fear it, love it, embrace it or shy away from it — it’s here.” Our challenge is to use AI wisely and humanely.

Note: The authors of the HBR article cited above are Jorge Tamayo, Leila Doumi, Sagar Goel, Orsolya Kovacs-Ondrejkovic and Raffaella Sadun.

Click here to watch to the full LinkedIn Live interview with Mahesh M. Thakur.

First posted on 10.00.2023