A conversation with Dom Michalec, Product Management Coach at Pathfinder Product
“It was a humbling experience because I was the one leading those unproductive meetings or leading the teams astray and just talking about the work and really not having any action items or decisive plan of action afterwards. It was both a humbling experience but also really exciting because I felt like it was that itch that was finally scratched for me. You see it in action and you realize, yep, that’s what I’m looking for. That’s really cool, I like that.” – Dom Michalec
In this episode of the Facilitation Lab podcast, host Douglas Ferguson talks with Dom Michalec, a product coach at Pathfinder Product. Dom shares his journey into facilitation, emphasizing the importance of effective collaboration within teams. He discusses his experiences implementing liberating structures from the book “Liberating Structures” into his meetings, leading to improved idea generation and decision-making. Dom also highlights the importance of refining facilitation skills and behaviors, not just acquiring tools. The conversation further explores Dom’s work at Pathfinder Product, the challenges of designing effective one-hour workshops, and the concept of coaching up. The episode concludes with a discussion on the importance of facilitation as a leadership skill and the need for continuous learning in the field.
[00:01:24] Dom’s start in facilitating workshops
[00:13:29] Challenges in Workshop Design
[00:20:06] The enduring pop up rules
[00:26:17] Coaching up in one-on-one meetings
[00:29:30] Facilitation as the Leadership Skill of the Future
[00:31:46] The Importance of Curiosity in Facilitation
Links | Resources
Dom on Linkedin
About the Guest
Dom’s passion for product began early in his career while working in healthcare IT startups. Since then, Dom has focused on helping Product teams see the Why through the How when it comes to tackling tough problems on behalf of customers and business. Dom specializes in aligning business/product strategies, behavior design, product discovery, and agility.
About Voltage Control
Voltage Control is a facilitation academy that develops leaders through certifications, workshops, and organizational coaching focused on facilitation mastery, innovation, and play. Today’s leaders are confronted with unprecedented uncertainty and complex change. Navigating this uncertainty requires a systemic facilitative approach to gain clarity and chart pathways forward. We prepare today’s leaders for now and what’s next.
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Hi, I’m Douglas Ferguson. Welcome to the Facilitation Lab Podcast, where I speak with voltage control certification alumni and other facilitation experts about the remarkable impact they’re making.
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Today I’m with Dom Michalec, at Pathfinder Product, where he coaches product managers, designers, software engineers, and managers, in product management principles and practices. Part of his practice includes facilitating workshops for teams looking to hone their product strategies and goals for innovation. Welcome to the show, Dom.
Thanks, Douglas. Appreciate you having me on. Looking forward to the discussion.
Absolutely. It’s great to have you here. So let’s roll the clock back and just think for a moment about how Dom got his start in facilitating workshops and working with product leaders. What were some of those formative moments that got you into this work?
Yeah. I would say thinking about the past, working as a product manager, there’s a lot of different disciplines that product managers have to interact with on a day-to-day basis. We’re not the ones building the product. We’re not the ones engineering it, we’re not designing it. But nonetheless, we need to learn how to interact with those type of folks and interact with the dynamics that they bring to the table day in and day out.
So I think I learned fairly quickly as a product manager. Facilitation, whether I knew it or not at the time, I don’t think I had a term for it, but I knew there had to be something that I could do as a manager of a product to ensure that all these different disciplines, all these different personalities, all these different skills that people brought to the table somehow could coalesce into something really, really cool. Otherwise, we weren’t going to make progress on anything that we were trying to accomplish as a team.
So again, thinking back in time, really facilitation was what I was seeking. I just couldn’t put a term to it, but I knew deep down that there had to have been something out there for these different groups to be able to interact and work effectively together.
And so thinking back into the time where that work was happening, do you recall a time when it became apparent to you that, wow, this is called facilitation, or this is facilitation that’s happening?
Yeah. And it took a really great facilitator to show me what was possible. Honestly, I would say working in innovation, there’s a lot of opportunities for third parties to come in and work with teams on a variety of topics, whatever it may be.
There was an early time in my career where we actually brought in a… They weren’t necessarily called a professional facilitator, but they led a workshop with us. It was, I guess you would call it a design sprint these days. But it was only a one-day workshop where essentially, they were there as an unbiased third party to ensure that we were getting out of the time the things that we needed to get as a team. And as I’m sure you’re probably well aware, it’s really hard to both participate in a meeting and facilitate a meeting at the same time. There needs to be some semblance of a delineation between those two roles.
So I remember very distinctly walking away from some of these workshops wondering, “What the hell was that? That was awesome. What did they just do?” And being able to reverse engineer that and study the topic a little bit more, I realized, “This is an actual thing. These people are professional facilitators. They call them workshops, but they’re professional facilitators and helping guide us as a team in our decision-making, in our idea generation, and ultimately what we plan on doing after this time together.”
That was really cool to see. And it really sparked my interest, because these were great workshops. I had a lot of fun. We got a lot of really great work done. I just didn’t know, what is this alchemy that this person used to get us to get here. And come to find out that alchemy is just nothing more than really great facilitation.
Yeah. And that story rings true to me, and I’ve seen countless others have similar experiences where you witness someone else do it, or you’re the recipient of a great meeting, a great facilitation. And especially when that comes in a world where you’re used to really bad meetings or really poor facilitation, it’s quite something to behold. Right? You definitely notice it.
Oh yeah. Yeah. It was a humbling experience, because I was the one leading those unproductive meetings or leading the teams astray and just talking about the work, and really not having any action items or decisive plan of action afterwards. So it was both humbling experience, but also really exciting because I felt like, I don’t know, it was the itch that was finally scratched for you. You see it in action and you realize, “Yep, that’s what I’m looking for. That’s really cool. I like that.”
And so once you got exposed through observing these facilitators, what was the first thing you did?
The first thing I did was… And this is just my personal style, I like to go off on my own and go very deep into a subject before I reach out to folks to learn more about their perspectives or maybe where I should go next.
And from that, I would say the very first thing I did was I bought the Liberating Structures book, and I read it. It’s a pretty thick book, and I read it over the course of a weekend, and it didn’t feel like a chore. In fact, I was looking for opportunities to cancel plans or move things around in my weekend just to get through this book, because I really, really thought it was awesome.
And I think the reason why I did that was because after this workshop, I asked the facilitator, “Hey, what are these things? What did you do? What are these tactics?” And he said, straight up, “These are just Liberating Structures. How I structured the invitation and how I structured our time together, those weren’t my ideas. Those are just tools that I used to help teams get the things done that they want to get done.”
So he introduced me to the book immediately. I fell in love. I read the book front and back, and then I just came up from the surface. I tried putting these things into practice right away. The whole 1-2-4-All Liberating Structure I think even as advertised in the book is the gateway Liberating Structure for the rest of them. So start here. And I started implementing it immediately in my meetings after that with my team.
I saw that they were, in fact, easy to use and really powerful tools for helping teams basically surface the best ideas and take action on the ones that the team thinks are most important moving forward.
So coupling my deep dive into the book, putting them into practice, seeing firsthand just how important and awesome these things were led me to thinking about designing my own workshops and facilitating my own workshops.
And I think when we get to where I’m at today, me understanding where those workshops fell flat is when I first wanted to reach out and go through the program with Eric and you, Douglas, at Voltage Control.
I’m really curious, as you were starting to see some of this initial success and getting to use some of the tools, what do you think was the gap between feeling like some of the things fell flat, versus also feeling the tools were easy to use, and you were able to make some progress, but there are still some gaps left to fill? How would you quantify those, or what was really going on there?
Yeah. I would break it down into three distinct buckets, skills, tools, and behaviors. I had the tools. I was using the tools. My skillset wasn’t quite there yet, and the types of behaviors that I needed to exhibit as a facilitator weren’t quite there yet.
So I would say the tools are the tools and they’re easy to use, but it’s almost like an apprentice type of a situation where you’re introduced to a tool, you start using it, playing around with it, generating some value through using it. But it’s really the skills behind the tools that matter and the behaviors that you exhibit through those skills that ultimately mattered the most. I think that’s where the gap was. I had the tools, but the skills and the behaviors were lagging my use of the tools.
Yeah, that makes a ton of sense. I talked to a lot of folks that just are so focused on want to learn new tools. I want to get some more tools in my tool belt. And it’s like, man, that’s great and all, but how about spending some time really refining the nuance?
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong. I think it’s a natural progression of expertise where you have your fun and games type of time with a tool, but then you realize, “Okay, there’s more here to explore. I know how to use the tool. What am I missing?” It’s like, well, you need some skill in order to use the tool effectively.
Yeah. And so you realized these gaps, you came, you took the program. And then I think one thing that was really cool is we had an opportunity to bring alumni in. And we have these opportunities periodically, and there was one in particular that we were able to bring you into last spring, late spring I think it was. It was really fun to see you in action alongside of other alumni as well. That’s a personal reward for me is when I get to bring alumni together and put them in front of clients or in front of real scenarios and to situations. So I’m kind of curious from your perspective, what was that like as an alumni to see alumni from other cohorts, and even get put into an environment that might be a little different than what you run into at Pathfinder?
Yeah. I would say what was really insightful for me, and why I really enjoyed that experience for folks listening to this episode is both you, Douglas and Eli, kind of picked the tools ahead of time that we were going to use, which is fantastic because I didn’t have to think about that stuff. But then it brought it to prominence this topic of skills and behaviors.
And I think having gone through the certification program, if I may, I learned the behaviors necessary to put the skills into practice I.e., it was really nice to see a lot of things that we learned in the program surface. I don’t want to say it came naturally, because I definitely had to think about this stuff and it might’ve felt a little bit mechanical from my perspective. But I definitely knew, okay, before we go into an exercise, I need to explain to the team, what are we supposed to get out of this exercise? What should we be able to do because we did this exercise? And really start from that outcome and then work backwards towards using this tool to help us get there. And feathering your cap, Douglas, I would never have thought of approaching these activities in that way from that perspective had I not gone through the program.
So for me, it was nice because I felt more confident in the ability to focus on the skills and the behaviors. And you kind of took care of the tooling ahead of time. It’s like, “Okay, now this is my opportunity to not worry about the tools and really focus on the things that I need to get better at.”
Yeah. I think that’s an important distinction. And I saw some folks really have some profound shifts at that event specifically, and I think it’s because they don’t have to do the design. They don’t have to worry about the methods or whether or not that got designed properly. You can really just lean into the execution.
Yeah. And focus on the things that, quite frankly, I see a lot of facilitators, professional workshop facilitators, maybe even they need to harness themselves and get better at themselves. It’s less about the tools. It’s more about how you bring those tools into the space that help people do the things they ultimately want to do.
Yeah, and how you show up.
Yeah. So coming back to the Pathfinder work, I’m kind of curious. Clearly when you’re doing workshops at Pathfinder, you have to design the workshops, so you’re responsible for the selection of the tools. And so it’s the tools, the behaviors, and the skills.
But beside the mechanics there, what are some differences? You’ve got these cross-functional teams, product managers, engineers. I mean, clearly in that event, it was a bunch of folks that don’t work together trying to create solutions for big grandiose problems. But I would imagine you have your own set of challenges when you’re working with the Pathfinder clients. They’re cross-function, and so they have competing needs and desires, and you’re having to help them walk through those challenges together. I’d love to hear a little bit more about the kinds of things that you typically run into in your workshops.
Yeah. I’ll speak to the things that I normally run into, and how maybe I have learned some tough lessons and overcome those. Early on, I would come into workshops not having done anything ahead of time to really get the pulse of the room that I’m walking into. Usually I’m working with a sponsor or a key stakeholder, and the lens of the workshop kind of flows through them, or had flowed through them, and didn’t have an opportunity to get a heat check from the folks who were actually going to be in the room.
So I’ll give you an example. There was a workshop I was doing. It was an objectives and key results workshop, where the purpose of the workshop was by the end of this workshop, everyone should feel confident in the direction of their objectives and key results. So what does that predicate? Obviously, people are going to have to be able to pitch these ideas and get feedback from these ideas. So there’s some tangible artifacts here that folks were going to have to present. Coming into the workshop, it was very apparent that the vast majority of folks had no idea what an objective and what a key result was.
So had I known that, there would’ve been some training involved on top of the workshop, I.e. talking with the sponsors like, oh yeah, they’ve done objectives and key results before. This should be old hat for them. That was not the case.
So I don’t want to say the workshop felt flat. We still got some really good value out of it, but it would’ve been even better had I had a chance to get a pulse check of the team. Like, “Hey, what is your comfort level with this topic? What are you most skeptical about? Where do you see an opportunity to learn more about this topic before we do a workshop together?” Those types of questions that I now ask, that I didn’t previously ask before.
Yeah, it’s always our assumptions that get us in trouble, right? And sometimes our assumptions are based on good faith actions. Right? We ask the sponsor and they say, “Yeah, they know,” and then we just assume, “Okay, the sponsor knows, has a pulse.” And that always bites us when we don’t quite know how people are walking in. And we’re never inside everyone’s head perfectly, but the more we can know, the better. Right? Because to your point, it’s like it might not fall flat, but it maybe prevented it from flourishing.
Yeah, well put. I wholeheartedly agree with that. Yeah.
So OKRs, that makes sense that y’all would do OKRs workshops. What other kinds of workshops are you typically running?
Yeah, I’ve really started to introduce teams to product discovery type of concepts. So for folks who are listening to this and you’re like, “What’s product discovery?” It’s basically a key skill in a product manager’s tool belt that helps them make better decisions around what it is we’re actually going to build to provide value to our business, as well as the people we’re building the products for. I don’t think it’s a well-kept secret that a lot of times that teams will just build something, it’ll fall flat, no one uses it, no one really likes, it doesn’t really solve their problem. So how can we make better decisions to help us get closer to something that’s actually going to solve a problem for someone, that’s going to be a massive commercial success for our team and our business as a whole?
So the workshops in and of itself really focus in on helping teams put a lot of what they learn in the training into practice. I am very bullish on the idea of mixing in short training with, “Okay, now let’s apply this stuff right away to see what went well, what didn’t go well, what was awkward, where did we flourish as a team? Where did I flourish as an individual?” And then take a step back and then maybe do a little bit more training and dive into the workshops.
So these workshops are not days long workshops. In fact, they’re only an hour or two at a time, but they’re coupled with training on a concept ahead of time. So whether that’s an asynchronous video of me, recording of me walking through a concept or we do it live, I immediately want to follow up that training, that short bite-sized training with application of a concept in a workshop.
So by the end of these workshops, we should have some semblance of confidence in our ability to identify outcomes or identify prototyping ideas that could help us gain credible evidence towards a particular topic or whatever it may be.
So for me as a facilitator, especially as I’m coaching folks, I need to see the application of content. I need to see where they’re excited, where they’re doing really well, and maybe where they’re falling flat a little bit, because then that is input for my next training on a particular topic where maybe I need to double down on some things or rehash some things that we talked about in previous training times together, and maybe where I can move on to more higher level or more advanced concepts, if you will.
Yeah. And so you mentioned that these are one-hour workshops, and I find that intriguing because the thing about one hour workshops is they can often be really difficult. Because by the time you set the space, and enter people into the space, and get them comfortable, and get things moving, then now it’s time to shut everything down. So in [inaudible 00:19:46] parlance, by the time you open, it’s time to start closing. So I’m kind of curious, given that that’s the world you have to live in by just the constraints that you’re in, what do you find as some of your go-to moves to design a one-hour workshop that’s still effective given your context?
I cannot stress the importance of pop-up rules, enduring pop-up rules, if you will. Especially for teams that I’m working with over the course of four or five, six months, ensuring that we know how to navigate the time effectively together and how we can help each other reach our destinations in a very productive way.
I don’t think without having those pop-up rules throughout our sessions that endure as time goes on, if we didn’t have those, I think we would run into exactly what you’re talking about, which is we’re just getting warmed up and then we’re already starting to shut it down.
I’ve been very fortunate to work with very, what I would consider to be high emotionally intelligent teams that understand that the rules are not there to stifle them, but they’re there to help navigate the time effectively together. Much like I use the metaphor of these rules, they’re no different than stoplights, and stop signs, and yield signs. It’s not there to tag you if you do something incorrectly, but you need to get to your destination effectively, and these signs are there to help you get there. And these rules are no different.
So setting up a time with the teams ahead to say, “Hey, what are going to be our enduring pop-up rules for our time together? Why are these rules that we select important?” And having the team sign off on those and feel ownership in those has helped out a lot.
So having a space for the team to come together and figure out what rules they want to adhere to. And I guide them. I’m not saying go figure out your own rules, but help guiding the teams around what are the rules that we need to ensure that we are constantly abiding by when we come together for these workshops. What is it, slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Let’s slow down a little bit ahead of time so we can go fast as time goes on.
Yeah, I like this idea of the enduring pop-up rules. So once we’ve established them, when we meet together in this space, we’ve already kind of set these expectations that that’s how we will be together in this space, every time we reenter. Then you’re designing a long arc of a workshop. You’re just kind of administering it in small pieces.
Yeah, exactly. I would say one of the nice things I really learned from the certification program was how to properly design a workshop, and that’s exactly what I do. I use that template to say, “Okay, what is the arc of our time together?” And I use the same format for what is the arc for this specific time together. What’s the arc for this specific time together? And are we making progress towards those outcomes that I originally set out, that were supposed to be four or five, six months down the line? For this one week, where are we making progress towards those outcomes? So yeah, absolutely, 100%.
I think also I’m picking up on something that you didn’t explicitly state, but I bet is really critical to your success and being able to do this in one hour. And so correct me if I’m wrong, but I assume you’re being really explicit about the one thing we’re going to do in that hour, and not trying to bake in too much, like your objectives or your outcomes you’re trying to drive to are limited in some significant way so that you can accomplish it in an hour.
Yeah. Actually, I think that’s a very poignant call out there, Douglas. Usually the outcomes are some flavor of, I want people to feel confident in something. I want them to sense some new emerging excitement on the concept, whatever it may be.
And we do check. I mean, in true Voltage Control fashion, we do our debriefs to make sure that we either made progress towards, or didn’t in some cases. I’m not saying it’s always successful, sometimes we don’t hit our outcomes. But I always like to use the last 10 minutes of these workshops say, “Hey, do you feel more confident now than when you walked in this room on using your opportunity solution trees,” or whatever, “To think about some experiments you might want to run next week with your team?” If I get thumbs up, or people will get really excited and they want to use the 10 minutes to expound upon that, I know it was a success. But yeah, the outcomes are always focused in on some flavor of confidence or a sense of a new ability before we leave the space together.
Yeah, I really like that assessment point at the end of the session just to make sure that we’re clear on, did we land this plane or not?
And again, it is key. I use that debrief time as… I’m just going to be selfish for a second. That is my time as a facilitator to think, “Okay, what do I need to do for the next training session to close the gap on something we didn’t close this session? Or where can I move on to more advanced topics if everyone feels very confident in their ability to use these new skills or tools with their teams going forward?”
It’s interesting that you use the word selfish, because I think it’s really in service of the attendees. If you’re really being mindful of what needs to be done next time and you’re using the time at the end to be really thoughtful about how you attune to the needs, that’s putting them front and center, just acknowledging the fact that that’s necessary. And even if they’re excited about doing something else, hitting the pause button so you can make that determination is really in their best interest.
Yeah. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it that way, but I appreciate it. I’m going to start thinking of it that way moving forward.
Nice. There you go. Amazing. Well, I’m just trying to be mindful of time here. There’s one thing I want to hit on before we talk about closing here, but let’s hear a little bit about this concept of coaching up. I know that’s something that you’re big proponents of there at Pathfinder, and I’d just like to give you a chance to talk a little bit more about that, and how facilitation plays a role in this program.
Yeah, I’ll give you a direct example. So a lot of times, I’m working with product managers that report to directors of product, VPs of product, group product managers, whatever. They have someone that they report to.
And I use a lot of the concepts, facilitation concepts in helping product managers facilitate or better facilitate their one-on-one meetings with the people that they report to.
I’ve noticed a need for this, not necessarily facilitation techniques, but a need that product managers have that every time I’m in a one-on-one meeting, we spend less time thinking about ways of helping me develop or coaching me and becoming a better product manager. We spend more time on status updates. A lot of these one-on-ones are, “Hey, what are you working on? Where are we making progress?” Blah, blah, blah, blah, whatever it may be.
And a lot of these product managers realize that this time really should be spent to help coach and develop me to competency or even beyond competency in the role that I play with this company.
And so a lot of times when I work with product managers, I structure our one-on-one time. So when I’m coaching them, I structure our one-on-one time to ensure that we have a true purpose for why we’re meeting, that we have a clear outcome for what we should be able to do after this one-on-one session together. And that between those two paths, that we make progress towards that stuff.
And quite literally, I say, “The way that you and I meet, I as your coach, you should also be meeting with your directors of product, your VPs of product, your group product managers in a similar fashion. So use these techniques, use these tools that I present to you during our one-on-one time, and see how they help transform your one-on-one meetings with the people that you report directly to.”
So the idea of coaching up is giving and arming the folks, these individual contributors, arming them with the behaviors, the skills, and the tools to help make their time critical and valuable, and a lot of times scant time with their leadership teams, making those more productive and more beneficial other than just delivering a status update of where things may be with their day-to-day work.
The facilitation techniques and the tools are arming them to do the behaviors necessary to coach up in their organizations and show in, a lot of times, if I may, show their leadership team what these one-on-one times really should be used for and can be used for.
Absolutely. I’m a big fan of helping others start to just see how leading in new ways might be more powerful, might be more effective. And what a great gift just to show up and say, “Hey, can we do this a little differently?” Rather than saying, “You’re doing this wrong,” but, “Here are some needs that I have.” And then the great leaders are going to realize, “Oh, wow, I should be doing all of my one-on-ones this way, or I should be running all my meetings like this.” I love it.
I think something that you and I could not be more aligned on is facilitation really being the leadership skill of the future, personally. I don’t want to put words in your mouth. I’ve just read a lot of your content, and that is a theme that I notice a lot of times, and I couldn’t agree more.
But leadership doesn’t necessarily mean the manager. It can be an individual contributor showing other people what good leadership looks like as well. And if you’re able to facilitate productive time together with the folks in your organization, whether you report to them or not, it doesn’t really matter. Exhibiting leadership is not a managerial skill. It’s a leadership skill. And using facilitation to put that into practice is a great place to start.
Yeah. And the facilitation and helping humans relate, and collaborate, and function better at work is only going to be more and more important, especially as AI gets more and more sophisticated and more things become considered rote. The idea of writing a complex thesis becomes considered rote.
What are required of our brains at that point, and how we come together, and fuse our brains in interesting ways. And I think facilitation is going to be more and more key to doing those things and unlocking that value.
Yeah. I think as the amp is cranked up on the amount of information that’s going to be flowing across our desks and into our heads on a day in and day out basis, we still need to be able to use that information for something to make some decision somewhere down the line with a group of people. And that’s why I think facilitation is going to be enduring, because as the amp is cranked up on information, the need to facilitate and guide what we do with that information as a team is only going to become more and more important as time goes along.
Absolutely, and hopefully it becomes a ubiquitous skill. Because the more people on the team that understand the mechanics, the better the team, right? Then the big team becomes almost self-facilitating, right? Because everyone understands these things and we just do it and live it. I think that’s a phenomenal state to imagine us getting to at some point.
Yeah, I’d love that. I think that’d be awesome.
So I want to give you a chance to leave our listeners with a final thought.
I’ll say this. Even if you’re a seasoned facilitator or you’re someone who is just dipping the toe and is curious about what facilitation can and cannot do, just being curious about what’s next, where you can get better I think is, I mean, especially as, I am by no means a master facilitator, but I’m better today than I was last year just because I stayed curious and I stayed open to learning new things. I think no matter what, that curiosity needs to be almost table stakes for being a good facilitator.
So that’s just my parting thought is do a gut check on your curiosity to learn new things, to challenge yourself, to challenge how you’ve been doing things in the past, to ultimately help serve folks with your skills in the future. Just stay curious. I think that’s really the parting thought. That’s the TLDR of it.
Nice. Dom, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you today. I really appreciate you coming on the show.
Thanks, Douglas. Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.
Thanks for joining me for another episode of the Facilitation Lab Podcast. If you enjoyed the episode, please leave us a review and be sure to subscribe and receive updates when new episodes are released. We love listener tales and invite you to share your facilitation stories. Send them to us on LinkedIn or via email. If you want to know more, head over to our blog where I post weekly articles and resources about facilitation, team dynamics, and collaboration. Voltagecontrol.com.