I’m a big fan of brown bag seminars also called brown bag lunches or just brown bags. I’ve seen them used very successfully to share knowledge and increase team bonding. Here’s some tips to make them successful for you.
Commit to a date and lock in a topic and presenter
Since a brown bag lunch is just as much about discussion as content, I find it’s good to commit to a date and lock in a topic and presenter. This puts pressure on the presenter to make time to get their content ready, and also not worry about having it ‘perfect’.
Give everyone an opportunity to present: try to avoid having the same person presenting over and over again. A good way to harvest ideas is to have spot near your team wall (or a trello board) where people can suggest topics they would like to hear or present.
Don’t limit the audience
Resist the temptation to make a brown bag lunch only for programmers, or only for business analysts etc. Even if the topic is aimed at programmers or testers, it’s good to have a goal to make your content interesting enough that it’ll appeal to the programmer or tester in anybody.
Don’t limit yourself to content that is directly aligned with your current work
Whilst content that is directly aligned to work is good as it’s a good way to get buy in, it’s also good to present content loosely related to what people are working on. For example, you could present a brown bag on distributed version control systems (such as git) to a team purely used to working with centralized version control (such as Subversion or TFS).
If you have a couple of short presentations during a single brown bag lunch you could possibly even have one that isn’t related to work. This is a little risky of course, but it can also be fun (I’m sure that everyone would love to hear about arid plants!). It’s also a good way to break any information filters we have.
When I first started organizing brown bags, I couldn’t work out whether the term brown bag seminars came from people bringing along their own lunch in a brown bag or being provided lunch in a brown bag. But through experience I have found providing a good lunch is a key contributor to a successful brown bag seminar: ‘chimpanzees who share are chimpanzees who care‘. It also provides a good motivator for people to give up their lunch break and come along because who can resist a free lunch, right?
Make sure everyone knows each other
If you’ve got a new team, or people from different areas who don’t know each other, start with a quick icebreaker where you go around the room and get everyone to introduce themselves. I usually follow the format of ‘name’, ‘role’, ‘a fun fact’ and another random tidbit such as ‘my biggest fear’ or ‘what I’m looking forward to’.
Make sure everyone takes something away
I follow the icebreaker with a question to the audience: ‘what do you expect to get out of today’s session?’ I bring a bunch of Post-it notes and sharpies along and get each person to write a few things they want to get out of the session and stick them to the wall. Ten minutes before the end of the session the presenter reads out each objective and confirms each one has been met with whomever wrote it. If there’s something that wasn’t covered, it can be discussed, or it could even become the topic of a future brown bag.
I’ve seen lots of great objectives written from things like “learn more about automated mobile testing” to “have a nice lunch with my colleagues”.
Always leave plenty of time for discussion
The discussion generated by a brown bag seminar is as important as the content. Make sure you leave plenty of time to discuss what is being presented.
I thoroughly recommend brown bag lunches as an effective information sharing and team bonding technique, and if you get them right people can really enjoy them and look forward to them.
What’s your experience been with brown bag lunches? Good? Bad? Do you have any tips yourself?