Facilitating Inclusion


I received a text inviting me for a chat overnight and it reminded me of how powerfully the ideas of Ernesto Sirolli’s Enterprise Facilitation methodology had influenced how I worked. The text was from Ernesto’s wife, Martha.

I met him back in 1988 when he gave a workshop as part of the opening of the Casino Regional Business Enterprise Centre that I had a lead role in establishing. 

What struck me was not just the content of his method but that he had developed a coherent method to help people grounded in psychology and philosophy. He had formed an understanding of what worked based on his experience of what did not. 

Ernesto began his work in enterprise facilitation in Western Australia. He was featured in an ABC television show called A Big Country made in 1985. I watched that episode and contacted him. 

Today the Sirolli Institute, based in Sacramento California, has a global impact. Ernesto has worked with communities under economic stress around the world to help in the creation of over 40,000 businesses. 

I was inspired by Ernesto’s approach. He had learned from failure and developed a methodology based on a coherent theory. Some 30 years later I was inspired again by Kate Nash whose PurpleSpace approach to supporting staff with disability was also grounded in theory and method. 

The foundation of methodology

There is a great fit between enterprise facilitation and disability inclusion, though this may not be immediately obvious. Both are people centred. This is crucial. 

I have fragments of Ernesto’s doctrine in my memory:

  • Do economic development as if people really mattered. 
  • Never initiate, never motivate – always respond.
  • If people don’t ask for your help leave them alone. 
  • Shut up and listen.
  • Act on the principle of, “The sun of love and the water of respect.” 

At the time I encountered Ernesto I was working in the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) – an agency seemingly devoted to misunderstanding the nature of the problems it was trying to solve. I was living on the far north coast of NSW at the time it was a counter-cultural heartland. Newcomers were streaming in. We had an oversupply of people and an undersupply of jobs. The solution was to increase the opportunities for employment, but the CES didn’t have that as a remit, so instead it provided training for jobs that did not exist.  

We were required to devise and offer training for occupations that were already over supplied. But I did manage to sneak in an isolated community business creation course after I met Ernesto. 

Ernesto’s journey began when he was working with an Italian aid agency in Africa. Instead of listening to what a community wanted it imposed its solutions – which failed repeatedly and ludicrously. This story is covered in Ernesto’s TED Talk and in his first book, Ripples from the Zambezi.

One of the questions I wanted to answer when I ceased full time work was ‘Why is inclusion so hard?’ This was similar to Ernesto’s question about why helping people was so hard. Why well-intentioned efforts at providing aid failed so often. 

Part of Ernesto’s answer was in the realisation that the people being ‘aided’ hadn’t asked to be helped. And they weren’t asked whether they wanted the aid.

So, had the people we wanted to be more inclusive asked for help to become more inclusive? They hadn’t. Had we asked whether it was okay to help them be more inclusive? No.

Yes, greater levels of inclusiveness are desirable – for obvious reasons. Inclusion is also mandated by legislation and supported by policy. But, at the actual level of personal performance, the passion to be more inclusive is patchy and uneven. 

A methodology begins with being invited to help. It evolves into a deliberate systemic approach – a skill. Another of Ernesto’s key insights was applying the idea of facilitation to helping people achieve their objectives.

Facilitation is the art of making something easier to achieve – by removing impediments directly or helping people acquire the skills or means they need to achieve their goals. Its about doing with, not doing to.

Can we facilitate inclusion? 

Ernesto’s rule of leaving people alone if they don’t ask for help is balanced by another insight. If people are successful and prosper in their lives, others will want the same thing – and may ask for help. 

In inclusion terms flourishing in a culture of inclusion may induce the less inclusive to want to change. But the only way you create a flourishing culture of inclusion is by modelling the behaviour you want to be replicated. When you are modelling the behaviour, you really know how to remove impediments, not just guess. Skill come from authentic knowing, not just theory.

Hence my argument that being the change you want to see is the first step. How do you induce the inclusion-resistant to be more inclusive other than by modelling the desired conduct yourself?

A staff network, or employee resource group, must be capable of creating a value proposition such that their organisation’s leadership asks for its help. It can, in fact, facilitate inclusion. But here’s the key. It must work only with whomever asks for its help.

Facilitation, as a methodology, works only if the facilitator responds to the positive potential of the individual being helped. It doesn’t work if a deficit is seen and responded to.

The roundtable as a facilitation method

In February 2019, as DEN Chair I attended my department’s executive board meeting along with 5 colleagues with disability. We gave short presentations on our experiences as staff with disability and then participated in an open conversation. It was a transformative experience for everyone. It set the template for what became known as Roundtables which were subsequently conducted across the department in the subsequent years.

I have written at length on Roundtables is some of my earliest posts, so I won’t repeat myself here.

It strikes me that the Roundtable is the ideal facilitation approach. The experience is invited because change is desired. But the secret is in how skilled the facilitators are in assisting the change toward greater inclusion. What impediments can be identified and addressed?                                  


The idea that we should try to change behaviours of only those who ask for our help is at odds with the assumption of a moral imperative implicit in the ideal of greater inclusion. We might argue that legislation and policy plus the evidence of injustice and suffering are sufficient justification to want to impose change.

There is a foundation of coercion in any organisation or community. But it is invoked only in extremis in healthy cultures. Self-willed intentional change of behaviour is the norm. Resistance to desired change is usually not intentional or conscious. 

When I came across Ernesto’s idea of the “sun of love and water of respect” I was surprised. That was a little too open for me at first. Ernesto’s Italian character allowed his heart to be closer to his work – as if people really mattered. This was Ernesto’s formula for nurturing the people he worked with – including those whose attitudes and values might be impediments to others’ aspirations.

Mostly advocates for greater inclusion will be fuelled by sincere good intent. They do genuinely care about the people they support. But the really effective change agents who work with the complexities of organisational cultures must have a higher order skillset.

A Facilitator must be self-aware. They must have a clear value proposition and the skills to deliver on it. This is something that can be learned. 

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