I like fresh sourdough bread. I also like making it because it is such a stress reliever. It also has some lessons to it, though, so bear with me.
First, you mix up the flour, salt, sugar, oil, baking soda, sourdough starter and water and beat it with a spoon for about a total of one minute. Then, you add in flour until the mixture is stiff, throw some flour on a surface, dump the dough onto the four and proceed to beat it up. Literally. Except, bakers call this “kneading the dough”.
After you let this ball rise for a few hours, you then “punch” it down. You are supposed to let it “rest” for 5 minutes, but I often get impatient and cut that short. You then throw more flour on a surface and, you guessed it, beat it up again. This time, though, you are kneading it until it gets to the shape and consistency of what you want. You then let that rise and bake it.
Who knew that baking was so violent? It is pretty decent exercise, though, especially the stirring part (which I do by hand). Not only is it a stress reliever because of all of the activity, though, but there is very little more soothing in my book than warm, fresh bread.
OK, maybe you don’t get as excited about fresh bread as I do, but you can still draw some project management lessons from doing all of this.
*Each loaf is unique
I don’t use a bread machine. I sometimes have to use a different brand of flour. Even the temperature and humidity have a profound effect upon the final product. That means each loaf is a project. Each one has to be individually monitored and controlled. Too cold? Don’t put it by the window. High humidity? Be prepared to use more flour.
*Things still go wrong
Even though you’ve done it dozens of times before, things still go wrong. Since I live in a normal, older house, I don’t have a lot of controls on the temperature or humidity at times. I can perhaps get them into a certain range, but to go beyond that becomes a matter of diminishing returns (in other words, prohibitively expensive for the value I would get back).
Yeast is a live organism. Sometimes the organisms just do what they want to do, oblivious to your plans for them. It is important that either you plan contingencies around these issues or that you don’t have a strict schedule to adhere to (and both is preferable). That last point means that if it takes you 2 days to do it, you’d better plan on at least 2-1/2 to hit your date!
*Things fall flat
Sometimes, no matter what, loaves fall flat. If you are using normal bread pans, this isn’t as big of a deal unless it falls really flat. Normal sourdough, though, is free-standing. I bake mine on cookie sheets, in fact. When things fall flat, there are a couple of things you can do: a. You can panic and rush it into the oven, hoping for the best. b. You can be stubborn and re-shape the dough into what you want and restart the timer.
In the past, I had always gone for a. One day, though, it was so bad that I couldn’t see any possible way that it wasn’t going to come out like flat bread. So, in desperation, I went for b. It turned out that it made a pretty decent loaf. Surprisingly, it rose in the oven just like it is supposed to do in spite of the extra time needed.
The corollary of this point is that you shouldn’t necessarily give up or take shortcuts, even if it takes a little extra time. Whether you have the time or not, of course, varies from situation to situation, but if you do, you might still save the project.
*Know your environment and tools
Ovens can be finicky things. I’m convinced most recipes are for electric ovens, while we have gas. If I follow the instructions in the recipe to the letter, the bread will be baked to the point that even the inside will be brown. It works wonders for burning cookies as well.
I’ve gotten pretty good at knowing to reduce the temperature by 25 degrees and the cooking time by 5 minutes for every half hour, but it can be a real pain to compensate if you have something that only takes 8 minutes to cook!
*Books are not the reality
I’m all for education and training. I’m all for certification. However, the books are not the reality. Take my oven, for example. If I stubbornly insisted upon following the recipes to the letter, then even I wouldn’t want to eat the result. The reality is that my oven has to be set somewhat differently than what the book says in order to produce a quality product.
*You’ll always have critics
Some people don’t like sourdough. When they think of sourdough, they think of some commercialized bread chain that is sort of sourdough but really isn’t. You will never win them over, so don’t bother.
Keep the fans happy, not the critics. There will almost always be someone who is going to complain because it is a Microsoft product, or that it is an Apple product or that Linux is too difficult to use. They either need to offer a reasonable alternative (and unreasonable may mean the project is 90% complete, so there’s no reason to go back to the drawing board), or they just need to deal with it.
On large projects, it isn’t unusual that someone isn’t going to like your approach, like your management style or maybe they just don’t like you. Just accept the adage that you can’t please everyone all the time.
What’s really important? The end product, right? Getting out a quality product (including within scope), on time and on or under budget. It is best to keep focused on what you are supposed to be producing and not what your critics want.
*Keep in mind who’s going to eat the bread
If you really have to bake for the critics, then don’t bake them sourdough bread. It’s not a sourdough project, then. Keep your target audience in mind.
Remember, the sponsor breaks all ties in a messy situation. The sponsor is the executive cheerleader for the project. The sponsor is usually the one who finds/acquires the money for the project. The sponsor gave you the flour ($$$, exec backing, visibility) to make the product.
If it is the sponsor asking you to add yeast to the sourdough project, then you potentially have a more serious set of issues to iron out. I’ve not run into a situation where it wasn’t just a simple misunderstanding, but I have heard of situations like this where the sponsor was asking the truly unreasonable.
*Some things cannot be rushed
Yeast will rise just as fast as yeast will rise. You can try to stimulate growth in various ways, but you create risks in other areas. You can raise the temperature, for example, but then you risk drying out the dough. Too much heat, and you actually kill the yeast.
Someone always wants it faster, it seems. There is a limit where “fast” starts to impact “quality” in a significant way. Unfortunately, I’ve seen organizations that never really seemed to learn this, no matter how unhappy their customers got.
*It is rewarding
It may seem like a lot of work, and some days it is (especially when it is already hot and you are pounding away at the dough). Yet, in the end, you are rewarded with freshly baked bread. Mmmmmmm….
Project management is the same way. It can get tedious. It can seem like a lot of paperwork or overhead. Yet, when you get the product out and the sponsor is happy, then doesn’t it feel good?
Of course, you cannot leave bread sit around, or it will go stale or mold. A project manager cannot sit on their laurels. And yet, part of the reward is the anticipation of the next loaf/project!