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Letters to a Young Manager

Pasta or Pastry?, #488
LTYM > Project Management

Dear Adam,
Solving a business problem and meeting a client's need can be frustrating. It's a common feeling for it to seem as if you have too little information to proceed. I've found that it's sometimes useful to ask whether you are solving a pasta problem or a pastry problem.

Allow me to explain. When I was on sabbatical in northern Italy, my wife and I attended a famous cooking class in Varenna [1]. Chef Moreno was the instructor [2].

We were learning to make gnocchi. First he poured a bag of flour on a large wooden table and created a "crater" in the center, into which he cracked open four eggs. He then began to mix the eggs with his fingers, and then included more and more of the surrounding flour until it began to thicken and become more dough-like.

"How do you know when it's mixed properly," we asked, pens poised above our notepads?
"You need to feel the dough," he said; "you will know."

He then spread the dough out with his hands and began to roll it with a large wooden rolling pin [3].

Again we asked, "how do you know when the dough is thin enough?"
He said with a matter-of-fact wave of his hand, "you will see the grain of the wood through the dough!"
Of course; how stupid of us. We were fledglings in the school of Italian pasta where recipes are more about the senses than the measures.

"The exception," he cautioned, "is pastry. For pastry, the measurements must be exact. Then you will follow a recipe!"

Chef Moreno at work; photos from TripAdvisor (refernece below)

For the Varenna Chef, the lesson was clear: there is no recipe for pasta; you must feel and taste; however for pastry. it needs to be exact. Too often we expect a recipe in order to get the job done (pastry); however customers expect us to make sense out of ambiguity (pasta).

So, in business it's more often about pasta, not pastry; making excellent experience from ambiguity
Sincerely yours,

[1] See the TripAdvisor review and many photos, here:
[2] See the chef's small web site, here:
[3] See the chef rolling the dough in this video at 0:50; his instruction for tortellini begins at about 1:30


Is it a pastry or a pasta problem?

Discussion Questions:

1. Which projects have you experienced where information was lacking, and the needs or specs unclear?
2. How did you proceed? What were the steps and techniques your team used to clarify what the client wanted?
2. Have you practiced "sense-making"; making sense out of an ambiguous situation?

For Further Reading:

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