Feeling Absolutely Awesome About Yourself

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 here 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. We will look at it in more detail at some other time. 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



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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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