Brown Bag Lunches

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Original Message

From: Michael Riggs, posted on 2010/03/11

Does anyone have suggestions for methods/formats of a short (e.g. 45min) brown bag lunch type session? The objective would be to share information about a particular piece of work ongoing within a large (newly formed) team, in a way that encourages discussion and thought about potential internal synergies, during the lunch break.

I think the long-term goal (through having a series of these) would be an increased team awareness of "the big picture" and the ability to identify skills/expertise within the team's members.

All ideas are most welcome.


With regards, Michael


All replies in full are available in the discussion page. Contributions received with thanks from:

Michael Riggs
Carl Jackson
Ashely Kiehnau
Ian Thorpe
Jaap Pels
Valerie Brown
Beatrice Murray
Pete Cranston
Piyoo Kochar
Patrick Lambe
Rachel Cardone
Naguid Chowdhury
Denise Senmartin
Julia Cleaver
Sam Lanfranco

Related Discussions


Summary prepared, with thanks, by Pete Cranston.

This discussion was sparked by a question: "ideas for a short (e.g. 45min) brown bag lunch type session, aiming to share information about a particular piece of work ongoing within a large (newly formed) team,in a way that encourages discussion and thought about potential internal synergies, during the lunch break."

  • Called ‘Brown Bag’ because people often bring their food in one, the term refers to informal discussions around a topic (eg ongoing research, first ideas for a project) at lunch time, with lunch brought (or sometimes provided). In an organization, some lunchtime meetings are catered, while in others you're expected to bring your own lunch. For organizers, a nice way to set the expectation that no lunch will be served is to call it a 'brown bag'. That way, participants will bring their own. The equivalent in South Asia might be a 'tiffin box' lunch!).
  • Or: Brown bag lunch means you bring your work to lunch. Call it a mini-seminar, a discourse, a gig, a get together from in- to formal; just share information on a topic. Good thing about the lunch part is that eating people most do not talk which creates space for others and can shut up loud-boxes although some forget lunch!
  • a content focussed think tank during lunch.

Note: different options appropriate to different cultures: a key dryland rural development technique (contour dams) spread across a new geography because the team which spread it had a tradition of Friday afternoon beers or sweet tea to talk things through


  • To provide an opportunity for people to meet and exchange ideas in a more interesting and interactive format than the traditional lecture with Q&A format.
  • to stimulate meaningful conversations and story sharing between participants, a very good way of building common ground and deepening connections within a team.
  • The long-term goal through having a series of these would be an increased team awareness of "the big picture" and the ability to identify skills/expertise within the team's members.
  • The presenters get the benefit of feedback from their colleagues (both here in HQ as well as from the other offices)
  • Young staff get the opportunity to widen their knowledge of activities outside of their own units. At times it is the best staff development on offer.
  • Staff from various units and organizational levels are all in the room learning together.
  • it allows staff that would not normally be invited to the various discussions and presentations, as a part of their daily work, be able to participate. * Having it a lunch lets people choose to use their time for this activity where they may not be able to come if it were during their regular duties. Of course many supervisors think that it is a good use of time and give work credit for the time – then you can go home a bit early perhaps!


Contributions below described event/meeting formats that could be put on a continuum. At one end is the lunchtime meeting, which is about getting people in very busy organisations to have meetings that aren't operations focused. Those are usually quite organised and often need to include entertainment of some kind, precisely because people are giving up their free lunch time. So it's often fabulous slides and good anecdotes about people or projects, chat show (example from an ICCO meeting At the other end of the continuum is the most informal kind where the conversation is as likely to be about food, or gossip than work. The key there is an much about regularity as agenda, enabling people to build up trust that this is a space where less significant, more tentative ideas can be floated or slightly scary challenges opened up

  • First, our team leader introduced the project from a high-level perspective and then broke it down into three main components. Two people working on each component sat at a table and the "audience" rotated every 15 minutes.
  • I would say go for lots of photos and some humour to make the message more sticky
  • Something very simple. Brief presentation that ends with some questions and invitation for input to the audience. Leave plenty of time for questions and discussion.
  • We ran a regular brown-bag lunch for years It was really informal, no actual speakers, although lots of chat. Initially, it took some weeks before people got the message that we would be there, were hospitable and it was a good way to have lunch. We ran it once a week, same time , same place so it was a reliable spot in people's diaries. Mostly 6-8 people, sometimes 2, rarely none, sometimes 20. An occasional special visitor kept the interest up. We had tea, coffee and eventually had cheese and biscuits for the people who had not had time to grab lunch, but still came
  • You have one large group for an introduction to the format and the topic. Then the participants all break out into smaller groups to discuss certain questions or ideas - the value added is the back-and-forth conversation rather than a lecture format. In my experience, K Cafes usually work best with around 30-35 people, but I've heard of it working with a variety of group sizes.
  • The less structure the better. One or max two people talk about what they are doing, what is working and any challenges. It is meant to be a lunch, after all, not a presentation or a meeting, and conflating one with the other sometimes irritates people. If you do it regularly then it can be a standard practice that everyone has to talk/lead in rotation, over a period. The synergies will emerge, if there are any to be found, from the more random conversation through mouthfuls of sandwich.
  • The following proportions are useful in planning the presentation (courtesy of Mozilla Monday Meetings wiki):
    • Past Accomplishments: 10%
    • Problems Encountered You Can Learn From: 20%
    • Interesting Upcoming Events/Activities: 20%
    • We Need Help With, and Here's How You Can: 50
  • Knowledge Sharing session followed by lunch. We used to call it- Lunch & Learn. We divided the session into two-
    1. People from various dept present about their recent work, some new findings in the Oil & Gas industry etc and
    2. A senior professional would present a personal career journey in the company or within the industry ( that would motivate young professionals in the org).
    3. After some Q&A, lunch is served- sometimes in a buffet format and most of the times in a package ( in brown color paper bag!) to take away.
  • We have the opportunity to attend one or more sessions nearly every week, though they are not coordinated by anyone. Whatever group wants to offer a session can, if the room is available. They are voluntary. They can range from a unit exploring a new strategy looking for feedback from other colleagues to visitors from our other offices reporting on a project or even doing a first run through of a presentation designed for an outside audience. Often they are outside experts who are collaborating with us on a project and are willing to share some of their interesting work with the whole staff while they are here.
    • We now use Elluminate e-learning and collaboration software so that staff in different offices can participate, even making the presentations at times. These sessions are recorded so staff listening later can get more out of it than just looking at ppt slides. Of course, we now sometimes have these sessions at other times than lunch to accommodate other time zones.
    • We have a repository of the presentations (including recordings) on the Resource Center intranet site so that staff can still benefit if they can’t come on that day.
    • As far as the idea of having the presentation first and then eating, that might be where we are heading in our office. The conference room is now equipped with microphones so that the online participants can hear the full questions and discussions. So now they hear all of the paper bags rattling and forks clinking!
  • A brief description of knowledge networking bag lunch meetings we have been involved with for about 35 years. Format is modified slightly depending on whether the group is a team within an agency or project, or a team across agencies or collaborators in a project. It has minimal structure and works best with groups up to 25-30 and as small as 4-5.
    1. A lead "presenter" pre-circulates a one page (front/back) document with at least 50% of the back page devoted to a pie chart, bar chart, or simple (SIMPLE!) table. At the meeting the "presenter" simply takes questions. (If the document is circulated 5 minutes in advance this still works - it is simple and direct and the seed for discussion).
    2. The document addresses one (ONE!) of a list of topics such as:
      • What are the strengths of our group (or me) - skills sharing
      • What are we trying to accomplish in our project/task
      • What are the challenges we are facing in out project/task
      • A project/task monitoring report - with issues to be faced
      • A milestone report - with issues to be faced
      • An evaluation report - with issues faced or to be faced
    3. Questions can be directed to anyone who opens their mouth
    4. Keep it light and civil.

Isn’t it meant to be lunch?

“I actually was shocked with when exposed to my first BBL 9 years ago- as a Latin American, I did value very much having a meaningful conversation on any topic while having lunch, but how was it possible for you to eat and make a presentation at the same time? I tried to adapt to this new world, understanding that efficiency meant also working while eating and that was seen as a productive way to spend lunch. However, at least most of the BBL presentations I attended in the US universities, World Bank headquarters, etc, were structured around a presenter whom -it seemed to be normal- would almost NOT have lunch!

When I am asked to do a BBL, I do think of WHEN I am going to eat: right before or after in front of the computer? Dinner only? Sharing should be a pleasurable experience for all involved! The key question for me is then how to make these lunch sessions a satisfying and enriching experience for everybody, not just let it up to the presenter to manage to give furtive bites to a sandwich. So in any format selected, do not forget this is LUNCH time!