Good Question!, Meeting Facilitation

How to Set Off a Brown Bag Session in Your Company – In 60 Minutes

First of all: What’s a Brown Bag Session? “A brown-bag seminar, session or lunch is generally a training or information session during a lunch break. The term “brown bag” refers to the packed lunch meals that are either brought along by the attendees or provided by the host.” (Wikipedia) At my current employer it is called Feed Your Brain¬†and at my former employer it was called Pizza Driven Development.

At my current employer I successfully set off a “Brown Bag Session” with minimal effort (60 minutes), so I like to share this experience with everyone who is thinking about setting off a Brown Bag Session at her company but doesn’t know where or how to start.

This is what I did:

1) Find a sponsor – 10 minutes
“Do food” is always good and it is even better if you have a sponsor who is willing to pay for the pizza (or salad or sandwiches or…).
Adequate sponsors for your Brown Bag Session could be HR, CTO or CEO. Those people are interested that company folks get together and learn: Personal development and team building are the magic words. And both can be achieved very low priced with a Brown Bag Session. (The average costs for food for 30 people are about 180 ‚ā¨.)

2) Find a suitable day and room – 5 minutes
Check Outlook (or other tool) to see which convenient room is available over lunch in the next months. Block the room.

3) Find initial speakers – 10 minutes (2 minutes per speaker :))
This maybe the hardest part: Inspire some of your colleagues (you will know who to ask) about the idea of Brown Bag Sessions, offer yourself for the first sessions, ask external friends or ex-colleagues, … If you’re really having problems to fill the speaker slots for the first 3-4 sessions you could even show some TED talks or other conference videos (LKCE, SmashingConf etc.)

4) Inform everyone about the first session – 15 minutes
Depending on your company culture there will be different options how to do this: E-Mail, Intranet, Wiki, Flipchart… Even better a combination of those options.
You should provide at least the following information: What is a Brown Bag Session? Why are we starting this at our company? What is the first session about? Where will it happen (room)? What time? What will be future sessions be about/Who are your speakers? Who to contact if someone is interested to be a speaker in a future session?
Use an easy Google form (or other) to get information with a deadline: Who wants to attend? Who wants which pizza (veggie or non-veggie)?

5) Find a Pizza delivery service (or other) & talk to them – 10 minutes
Exactly. Find it and then talk to them. In my case I stopped by and explained that there would be an easy way for them to earn around 180 ‚ā¨ on a weekly basis if they will deliver on time. They liked the idea… ūüėČ
Maybe you even have an in-house canteen or cafeteria? Maybe you have a good reason not to ask them…

6) Order Pizza (or other) – 10 minutes
With the Google Doc (see 4) you know who will attend and who wants which food. Order on time because there is nothing worse than hungry people in front of a speaker. In my case I order already in the late afternoon on the day before the Brown Bag session.

That’s it. Start like this and then inspect & adapt…

Advanced ideas:

  • Think about how to document your “Brown Bag Sessions”:
    We record every Brown Bag Session with a camera and then provide the video plus PDF-presentation in our Wiki. It’s cool to review and there may be people who missed a talk.
  • Ask people what topics they like to hear about:
    Either at the beginning of a session using Post-Its or again via a Google form.
  • Have a shared Brown Bag Session:
    Some people are afraid of or think that they do not have enough to speak about for 1 hour. It is fun to have three different speakers with three different topics in 1 hour. Alternative: Do it like a world cafe with three groups. In that case the initial speaker stays at his table and repeats his talk for three times.

Let me know what you are thinking about Brown Bag Sessions and comment if you’re having trouble to set one off.

Videos from Brown Bag Sessions
Videos from Brown Bag Sessions
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Check-In Activity for Agile Retrospectives

Fortunately retrospectives are already a standard at our company now. Not only our developers teams, but also our sales team, our team assistents and as of late also our management (surprisingly, the last.. :)) have regular retrospectives. Because it has become standard to have retrospectives there is also the chance of falling into a dull routine, both for the team members and the facilitator (mostly myself). To counteract this dull routine we try to do different activities. I tried the following Check-In activity in the last weeks:

Esther Derby and Diana Larsen suggest in their book “Agile Retrospectives” as a Check-In activity to ask every participant “In one or two words: What are your hopes or wishes for this retrospective”. No post-its, no explanation, just one or two words. This always works great.

This question inspired me to ask participants an even more general question as a Check-In excercise: “Why are we doing retrospectives anyway?” I do this as a kind of fast brainstorming and jot everything down on a flipchart. It is surprising what the participants are coming up with. I heard everything from “I don’t know.” (Oops!) and “Because you told us to.” (Ooooooops!) to “Kaizen. Continuous Improvement.” (Thx.) and “We don’t want to do mistakes a second time.” (!!!)

It is also a good excercise to remind the participants of the principles of the agile manifest, one of them is: “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” (Dare to ask if everyone knows and understands the Agile Manifesto… and maybe be surprised.)

And, of course, it is a good excercise to jolt the participants from their retrospective routine.

BTW: I recognized only days ago that Esther Derby and Diana Larsen book “Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great” is legally available also as eBook! Buy it!

Good Question!, Meeting Facilitation

How to Deal with Results from an Agile Retrospective?

Have you ever heard a team complaining about results of a retrospective not being realized? I have. And it’s important to change something immediately after hearing it.
Realizing the agreed improvments from the retrospective is one of the agile principles of the Agile Manifesto:

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly. (http://agilemanifesto.org/principles.html)
So if you are earnestly doing an agile “Inspect & Adapt” and do not realize the agreed improvements of a retrospective, you are missing the whole point and are doing a simple “Inspect”.

The answers to the following questions could help to make sure improvements are realized:

  • Who is responsible to realize the improvement?
  • How can you be sure that the improvements are not forgotten?
  • How are your improvements logged?

Who is responsible to realize the improvement?
Always agree in the retrospective who will be responsible for putting the improvement into effect. This can one or two persons. Write their names next to the agreed improvement. Do not assign the responsibility to the whole team as nobody will feel responsible then.
Problems that the team can’t solve themselves are impediment and¬† it’s then the Scrum Master’s job to push it up to the management: fast and direct. And it’s the Scrum Master’s job to get on the management’s nerves until the impediment is solved.


visualize improvements from retrospective
How can you be sure that the improvements are not forgotten?
Visualize the results of the retrospective. What seems to be working very well with us is to put a copy of the agreed improvements on the team’s board: Everyone sees it everyday at the Daily Stand-Up. Alternatively: Improvements turn to User Stories that are done within the next (!) sprint. Here it’s the Scum Master’s job to make sure this happens.

How are your improvements logged?
With “logged” I mean the structure of your agreed improvement in the retrospective:
1) Write whole sentences and not bullet points. This may take a little longer, but you (and everyone else) will understand them also after a few days.

2) As mentioned: Assign one or two responsible persons for the improvement.

3) Agree on a deadline when the improvement should be put into effect (or at least agree on a date when the team gets feedback on the status of the improvement)

Related post:
3 Retrospectives in 2 Days