Feeling Absolutely Awesome About Yourself
Epic Mismanagement

The SALSA Framework


For our purposes, SALSA is not a specialized form of dance or a delicious side dish. That said, it is true that allusions to these other senses are frequently hard to resist. For our purposes, SALSA is a way for a group of people to see, and I mean really see, the situation they are in and to see a path forward that they all want to explore. It is a way for different people to come together to make some magic and for different ingredients to come together in an impactful, even delicious, way. It seems that the allusions have already begun.

It would be wise of me to just declare what the SALSA framework is so we at least know where these allusions are coming from. SALSA is an acronym the breaks down into Scope, Aspiration, Limits, Stakeholders, and finally Assets. It is a way that people can use to look at a situation, any situation, and to move forward from it together. The together is the important part. We will dive into this in a little more detail shortly but let's first look at its origin, where it came from.

Cracked ItGarrette, B., Phelps, C. & Sibony, O., 2018.
Cracked It! How to Solve Big Problems
and Sell Solutions Like Top Strategy Consultants.
1st ed. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan US.

In very early 2020, one of the co-authors of this book, Corey Phelps led a number of sessions at the McGill University Desautels Faculty of Management as part of the International Masters Program for Managers (IMPM). The book, I should say up front, is quite good. I am normally more than a little suspicious of such books but this one was unbashed in its focus on dissecting and then tackling problems. The structure of the book actually tries to be useful and the logic that drives it works neatly. But as people who know me would expect, I just couldn't leave things at that.

As the IMPM advertizes, it goes out of its way to acquaint people with many different perspectives and tools, and our McGill Module (the Analytic Mindset within the IMPM model) was no different. Some of the other sessions, including a particularly impactful one with Nancy Adler, focused on Appreciative Inquiry (which some communities contract to AI forgetting, somehow, that this acronym is taken). So I thought - what would happen if I took appreciative inquiry and used it to create a companion model to that presented in Cracked It! This model would therefore replace the problem - solution pattern with one that focused on getting a group of people to move forward together, assembling a "solution", or more correctly a future, piece-by-piece as they went.  


Like the dance, we immediately see that this SALSA has steps. As these are preparatory steps, they are in fact like the steps we would take to make a good salsa. (OK, no more of these allusions.) What we can also see is that we have, with no small amount of presumption, expanded the label and the acronym to be "appreciative inquiry & design" or AID. Beyond that distraction we can see what SALSA is really meant to do. By asking a set of questions, asked in a particular order and each carefully intended to keep all eyes on the positive side of things, a group of people - and it must be a group - can start to frame a constructive way to understand a situation and what they want to do with it. 

It seems, I admit, a bit silly. As I often do, I will construct things that are intentionally silly. But this time, I was being at least partly serious and when it began to produce results I started to take it more and more seriously. In particular, it turns out, this approach seems to work well in environments where political tensions were running high and where past conflicts could, with the slightest provocation, burst into flames. If you embrace the structure of SALSA, and live it as it were, you can find yourself moving beyond these tensions and getting onto something new. 

I will be honest. I am a theory and systems kinda guy and I can be rightly accused to being tone deaf when it comes to the human side of organizational change. Accordingly my first attraction to the SALSA model was, shall we say, intellectual. Could I construct a change model that fully embraced the appreciative inquiry ethos? SALSA was the result. Probably owing to the practical impulses in Cracked It! and to the wisdom buried inside appreciative inquiry, the human side crept back in and has proven to be the real appeal and strength of the SALSA framework. 

So the steps in the SALSA framework are:

  1. Scope. What is the scope of the situation you want to focus on? What boundaries can we draw around our topic of discussion? More prosaicly, what are we talking about? Even more to the point, what are we not talking about? Where are we right now, today?
  2. Aspiration. As soon as we have established the scope for our inquiry, it is important to immediately cast our gaze into the future. What would be really like to see happen? Where would we like to be? We want to do this immediately so that we get away from the details of the present, at least for a moment. There will be a variety of brainstorming and visioning tactics and exercises that might be used but what has seemed to work are some periods of reflection followed by open discussions, perhaps in smaller groups before doing so in plenary.
  3. Limits. It was by design that the word "limits" was used instead of "limitations". The word "limits" suggests something we operate freely within and even something we can potentially test and push a little. The question that seems to click is "how far can we go?" This step is also the one that quickly injects some pragmatism after the aspirational step. Pragmatism itself can be a bit of liberating force. What do we need to work within for now and what do we need to work on changing so that the limit is "relaxed" to allow more movement?
  4. Stakeholders. Who is involved and who needs to be involved? What do we know about the various stakeholders and what can they bring to the party? As mentioned, ideally it is a group who are working through the SALSA framework together. The participants are stakeholders, obviously. In this step, the goal is to identify anyone who is not participating but who should be. Also, in line with traditional stakeholder engagement planning, some stakeholders will be more remote but no less real for being so and there will need to be a plan for engaging them appropriately.
  5. Assets. The series of questions ends on assets. What do we have to work with? Tapping into a vital part of appreciative inquiry, we are thinking here about the strengths that can be built upon. This is a pragmatic step as well. It ends the SALSA sequence by looking at the available "tools" (broadly conceived) and this inclines us to think about action. This also echoes what you see in emergency situations where things that might be available in a week or a month will be irrelevant when it comes to determining what can be done right now. The question you always hear in these circumstances is "OK. What have we got?"  

These five steps help us to frame a good question. The authors of Cracked It! rightly put a lot of emphasis on the importance of framing a good question. A good question, which might be quite a mouthful in that it communicates a lot of considerations, will determine whether the process that follows from it will get anywhere or anywhere you want to go. The whole point of the SALSA framework is to systematically work through a group's understanding of a situation in a way that produces a good question - one that everyone wants to see answered. In line with the spirit of appreciative inquiry, everyone not only wants to see the question answered, they see themselves as part of the process that will discover that answer. Indeed, they want to see themselves as being part of that answer. This is critical. 

Now SALSA fits into a larger performance or meal, sorry I mean picture. In the following S-5 Model, you can see how the SALSA steps help to set the stage for all that follows. And this makes sense. In order to take action of any form you sort of need to know where you are starting from - what is your current situation and what is your attitude towards it? The SALSA framework is intended to help you to determine that. And by "you", I am thinking of a group of "you" who are arriving at that determination together. And the SALSA framework is also intended to guide this process of determination in such a way that the group of people working through it come to that determination filled with positive energy and an eagerness to move ahead, again together. 

S-5 Method


S-5 Model: Moving from Acronyms to Alliteration

Cracked It! features a 4 part model that ends, predictably for consultants, with "Sell". One of my driving considerations in moving away from the "problem / solution" scheme so dominant in management consulting paradigms is the desire, or need, to think more holistically about how everything will fit together. Otherwise, we quickly slip into the barnaclization trap (see my earlier post on The Barnaclization of Systems) where disjoint solutions, however well-intended or effectively realized, conflict with each other and thereby degrade the overall system. So my S-5 Model starts with the SALSA framework for really coming to terms with where you are starting from - not only what is wrong with it, or could be better, but what is good about the present and can be built upon. Then the model ushers us through a series of steps that result in a new "system", a new way of doing things. From this point, the process repeats.

The S-5 components, or phases, are positioned as follows:

  1. Situation – as defined using the SALSA framework, this is the present situation being selected for study. It is what it is. But we have an attitude towards it and through the SALSA framework we will have brought out our more positive responses to the greatest strengths that we can see and are ready to build upon.  
  2. Sensemaking – this is a process of inquiry that seeks to make sense of things including what you intend to do. This phase expands the amount of detail being considered and seeks to ground and validate your SALSA findings. This is where we bring to bear selected analysis tools and techniques and where we might also conduct experiments to test out ideas.
  3. Strategy – this is where a strategy emerges as a roadmap of investments that will move you towards the desired goal. A strategy should not be over-specified. It does need to be specific enough to “get approved” but it should also be relaxed enough to allow the realization efforts to work with, and not against, reality – to be flexible.
  4. Synthesis – this is where things come together. This is where the people and the resources combine to create something new – something that builds on the strengths that have been identified and that realizes an improved future state. 
  5. System – this is the resulting system that realizes the desired future-state. This future state system is then “activated” to become the new way of doing things – the new situation from which the process can begin again.

The character of the S-5 Model definitely bears the stamp of the work of Henry Mintzberg, my supervisor at McGill. Sensemaking features as our first step towards realizing a change and it contains elements of action learning / action research where we act in order to learn and a strategy then emerges from that learning. The strategy then is something that is emergent, another of Henry's key points. Also important is that the strategy needs to strike the exact right balance between pointing the way and not encumbering the synthesis that necessarily follows, that must put meat onto the strategic bones. Henry is also fond of emphasizing the importance of synthesis, the bringing together of things into a functional whole, as an essential - and too frequently overlooked - corrollary to analysis, where we take things apart in order to understand them. The final phase is System - with this being used in the broadest of senses and not just the technology elements although they are clearly more and more prevalent these days.

Of course, in my rampage through Cracked It! I needed to modify everything I encountered. This was true of the guiding algorithm that the book provides. This algorithm provides the logic for which of three problem analysis and solution building paths a management consultant might follow. These paths are the Hypothesis Pyramid Path, the Issue Tree Path, and the Design Thinking Path. I collapsed all these paths into one path and all the logic switches into one go/no-go type of decision point. My algorithm then overlays the decision flow over the S-5 model phases with the result that follows:

S5 Decision Flow Diagram

This flow chart has some merits although its apparent simplicity conceals a fair bit of additional conceptual detail. As one example, we notice that the foundational question that we frame using SALSA at the beginning never really goes away. In fact, it acquires more detail as it goes along and then, I think very productively, becomes the guiding point of reference that is used to monitor, and if necessary correct, the resulting system (aka governance). Notice as well that the question is intentionally expanded to include internalities and externalities, with this being essential if our goal is to move towards a better future state system. Under the Design Thinking column, we do see an orientation towards action, towards acting our way to better insights. What may not be completely apparent, or that might be obscured by the prominent place given to "prototype" in the Strategy phase, is that elements of prototyping would be present from the very start - when we are trying to get into the shoes and lived experience of the people involved during the "empathize" and then "ideate" stages (ideate is a word I typically avoid using in polite company).

There is a bias being expressed here as well as my handling of the paths never leaves "Design Thinking" in the driver's seat but rather maintains it as a resource being tapped at each stage. This is because, in my experience, "Design Thinking", when it is left to its devices, ironically yields terrible designs from a broad system perspective. Design Thinking, with its natural tendency towards a tight focus on a specific problem or challenge becomes, almost inevitably, the unwitting accomplice through whose offices barnaclization is fostered and sustained. Kept in a limited supporting role, however, Design Thinking delivers value.

All of this - SALSA and the S-5 Model - showcases the merits, and possibly the demerits, of taking a variety of inputs and fashioning a working approach out of them. To be usable, and therefore a working approach, everything needs to hang together in a way that is internally consistent, grounded in concrete learning (whether through work that others have published as with Cracked It! or through experience), and ideally a little cute. 


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Tom Comerford

Thanks for this interesting discussion, Joe. A couple of comments, prefaced by noting that I often conflate theory and practice when thinking through conceptual models.

One concern I would have with the SALSA model is that an identification of stakeholders comes late in the analysis. Surely it must start with some subset of stakeholders. This would imply an iterative model, where the aspirations and the limits identified by the initial set of stakeholders may necessitate the inclusion of additional stakeholders.

Stated differently, the identification of stakeholders may in itself require further review of scope, aspirations, and limits. As SALSA is a planning model, rather than implementation, there should be no reason why scope cannot be revisited and modified.

As for limits, nearly anything would be possible with sufficient funding and staffing. It should follow that practical considerations such as return on investment would fit within this model, at least as an initial test. I'm not sure I like that, but I can't envision applying this model without such consideration.

Joe Gollner

iSALSA - Iterative SALSA

I do agree that iteration is essential and that any new thing being added has the potential to change everything. It's sort of a "hermeneutical circle" kinda thing.

And yes, my admonition that this is a group activity means that some selection of stakeholders are identified and engaged just to start the process off. Perhaps the first S really means "Stakeholders Synchronizing on Situation Scope". I better stop there.

In the experience I was alluding to, from whom I hope to see something shortly, the limits ran a wide gambit from physical distribution, a harsh natural environment, cultural legacies, historical and emergent engagement models, and a gateau of layered governmental bureaucracy. All of these established limits that, depending on where you wanted to go, were going to be encountered - and sooner rather than later. In each case, though, it became evident which limits were the most irksome and therefore where energies towards relaxing them (after the fashion of the Theory of Constraints) would add much needed room to manoeuvre.

Also, limits may be tackled by - as in your example - by playing the game by preparing a business case so that the budgetary limit is changed from five digits to six.

All of this is familiar territory, and people have grown accustomed to using one or another tactic. With SALSA, I was trying to add one more possibility. Specifically, I wanted to add one that leveraged Appreciative Inquiry and that gave it a well-grounded footing in practical reality (I do find that Appreciative Inquiry can wander in directions that sometimes feel like a New Age Retreat with a lot of talk about dreaming). I take, and endorse, your comments as encouraging me to continue along those lines.

Great to hear from you Tom!


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