Play Your Way to 3-Dimensional Thinking: Sirte Pihlaja

Play Your Way to 3-Dimensional Thinking: Sirte Pihlaja


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About Sirte Pihlaja:

Sirte Pihlaja (CCXP, Trained Facilitator of LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®) is the CEO of Shirute Ltd, the first customer experience agency in Finland. She is an internationally recognised CX/EX expert, coach, keynote speaker, designer and strategist with over 25 years of experience in advising large corporations and brands in various industries and countries.

Sirte is the leader of CXPA’s Finland network, member of the International Advisory Committee and one of CXPA’s founding members. She was one of the first Europeans to have been certified as CCXP. Sirte was recently recognised as a TOP 150 Global Customer Experience Thought Leader and on the CX Hall of Fame. The CXPA has also awarded her the Extra Mile Award. She has written three books on people experiences, two out of which are global #1 bestsellers.

When Sirte is not playing with LEGO bricks with her clients, she is passionately championing CX in the Nordics, South-East Asia and beyond and is a familiar face in international CX Awards juries and on conference stages around the world.

Follow Sirte Pihlaja on LinkedIn
Follow Sirte Pihlaja on Twitter @sirteace

Check out LEGO Serious Play at
Check out Shirute at

This episode was also recorded in video format. To watch the conversation, tune in below:

Mary Drumond

Mary Drumond is Chief Marketing Officer at survey tech startup Worthix, and host of the Voices of Customer Experience Podcast. Originally a passion project, the podcast runs weekly and features some of the most influential CX thought-leaders, practitioners and academia on challenges, development and the evolution of CX.

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Mary Drumond: Hello, and we are back with one more episode of Voices of Customer Experience season seven. Today I am joined by Sirte Pihlaja all the way from Finland who has an awesome project involving Lego Serious Play. So I’m quite excited because we’ve never had anything like this on this podcast before. And whenever we have new content, it always gets me really psyched.

Hi Sirte, welcome.

Sirte Pihlaja: Hi, thank you for inviting me over.

Mary Drumond: Awesome, thank you so much for coming.

Sirte Pihlaja: Yeah. I’m so glad that I can be talking about Lego Serious Play, my greatest passion.

Mary Drumond: Well, this is the place for passions. I always say that whenever people go into a state of flow where they can discuss their passions freely, that makes for the very best content, because the listeners can feel that passion.

And I’ve had a call with you before, and I know how passionate about this topic you are. So hopefully our listeners and our viewers will feel some of that passion coming through their screens and their speakers today. So let’s kick it off. Tell us about Lego Serious Play, cause I don’t think people know about it.

Sirte Pihlaja: Sure. Lego Serious Play is actually, you said it in a nutshell there when you talked about flow, because that’s the main thing around Lego Serious Play. It’s about flow and getting to the state where you’re giving all of you into the thing that you’re thinking of. To put it in more specific terms, what it’s about, it’s about, methodology and materials that Lego company created for themselves in the late 1990s when they were on the brink of a bankruptcy and they needed to change directions really fast. And they decided that, Hey, we need to, you know, get new ideas and innovate the way forward from here as a business. And they asked two university professors, Bart Victors and Johann Rose, to come up with this methodology. And it’s been then grounded on several academic, I think there’s 20, almost 30 different academic theories in the background and flow is the most, probably the most well-known of these method – sorry, theories.

Mary Drumond: That’s awesome. And how much are you bringing in regarding ludic play and how does that contribute to people performing outside of their serious work corporate minds? And what does that create?

Sirte Pihlaja: Well, you know, play is the most fundamental learning mechanism. And it’s the way how small kids learn all of their cognitive skills. So whether it be about learning about themselves, about their friends, their relationships, communication, all of that.

And it’s said that, when you’re learning something new through play, you learn better quicker, and you’re more likely to utilize those newly acquired skills.

Mary Drumond: Is that like an emotional thing in the mind? Since play is fun, does it bring out something that helps us remember better or process better? What’s the science behind it?

Sirte Pihlaja: You would need to ask a real scientist about that. I’m not, I don’t think I qualify to answer that question, but as far as I know, it’s really about getting- there’s, I never pronounce his name right, but, uh, Csikszentmihalyi, there you go again, pronouncing names, you know, he’s the founding father of flow and really this person who has been talking about this, how, when you get into this state of play, you really are challenging yourself.

It’s not, you know, you get happy and the getting happy it’s not just about doing something that you really like doing, but it’s also putting yourself in front of a challenge that is challenging enough for you that it’s kind of interesting for you. But not too challenging so that, you know, you couldn’t do it really. So that’s some of the theory about it.

Mary Drumond: Yeah. So it has to be just challenging enough that you’re engaged. It can’t be too easy so that you feel bored or you feel stupid or you feel like it’s not interesting enough to actually give it your full attention.

Sirte Pihlaja: I think that’s very well put. And really there is a saying that play is not the opposite of work. Boredom is. And, you know, you get bored if you’re doing things that are either repetitive, or things that you know too well, or you’ve been doing them for a long time. So in that sense, it’s really good idea to bring in play there. So you really unlock that creativity that you have inside of yourself.

Mary Drumond: I have never seen an actual training program with Lego Serious Play, but I have seen full grown adults, executives, people who are at the top of their game, professionally, financially, and even in their family and social lives, become absolute children in the best way possible with a box of Legos. My brother-in-law is one of these people.

If he sees a box of Lego, he’s like, Ooh, Legos, and he’ll immediately get down on, lie down on his belly and start tinkering with Legos and building amazing things and people grew up around, and it’s amazing the magic of building something in such a tactile way with your hands and watching that creation kind of sprout up in front of you.

Is that something that you noticed as well, even in serious play?

Sirte Pihlaja:  It definitely is. And I think that the magic word here is tactile, because you’ll feel it. And it’s something that it’s not digital because we all had, you know, all these digital things and too much of it to be honest.

So having something that you can actually feel and build yourself is totally different from what we’re used to. And it’s, one of the kind of slogans of Lego serious place to give your brain a hand. And that’s really what we’re doing. Cause I’m always saying to my participants that, Hey, I’m going to give you this new language that you have never taught or learned before.

So I’m going to teach you that. And it’s really about that mind-hand connection, where sometimes you might be just building something and you don’t even realize what-  One of the main things that we say also as facilitators,  don’t think, just build. So, that’s very good advice and instruction because you might just come up with an exact solution. That’s happened to me several times when I have participated as a kind of participant in these workshops where I just built, I was fiddling with my hands and suddenly realized that, Hey, that’s the model. That’s the thing that I wanted. That’s the whole story is inside of this model. And I didn’t even realize what I was doing hadn’t been doing.

Mary Drumond: So let’s get into this process a little bit. I imagine that it’s not like I can come in with a box of my kid’s Legos, throw it out on the floor and say people, be better. I imagine there’s a methodology and there’s, it’s important to have a trained individual that knows what they’re doing.

Can you break that down for us a little bit?

Sirte Pihlaja: Yes, of course. It’s quite a general misconception that LSP is some kind of team building exercise, and that’s definitely not what it is all about. So in as in any facilitated process, the facilitator takes care of the process. And so, he or she then lets the participants focus on the real content. And the facilitator training to become a certified or nowadays trained LEGO facilitator takes about four days.

So you’re going very deep into the, not just Lego serious play and all of that, but also into the facilitation skills. And I always like to give this example, that you wouldn’t go, you know, deep sea diving either without having a proper instructor to help you out. So we are really, you could be snorkeling, you know, by having your friends or your parents help you and teach you these skills, but it’s really, a trained facilitator can bring you so much further into the sea and deeper.

Mary Drumond: That’s awesome. So how does it work? When a company invites you to perform a Lego serious play workshop, what are the objectives in mind? And here’s where I’m going to add a little bit customer experience into the story. How are you using Lego serious play to improve customer experience inside of organizations?

Sirte Pihlaja: Well, we have our own application of Lego serious play, which is called CX play. Okay, so we can do any and all of the sort of requirements from our customers and clients that it depends entirely on what they want to be developing. So whether it be CX strategies, personas, customer journey mapping, voice of customer, doing your planning or your actual experience design. We do also prototyping, we’ve been doing as part of the service design process. So, it’s really the main thing is to understand it’s not about the methodology, it’s to understand what the outcome is that the client is looking for and then building the workshop around that. And the main thing I think is, is something that we should be thinking a lot more also with not using creative methodologies, is to understand what the questions should be that help us find out those results that the customer is looking for.

Mary Drumond: Yeah. So, what does that look like? I imagine again, that we’re not putting together a car with Legos. What are you stimulating through that creativity? What is it that, I mean, you’re not, you don’t have time to go through the entire workshop, but what does it look like when people come to a room together and they sit down? Do you first lay out what the objectives are or is the serious play part a portion of the entire workshop that then composes other activities and exercises?

Sirte Pihlaja: You could combine it with other activities as well. But in general, I would say that people get so involved with the Lego serious play part that you rather, if you get them into the flow- state of flow- you’d much rather keep on going than start doing something, you know, a different activity on the side or in the middle of it.

And come to think of flow again, it’s not Lego serious play if you haven’t done the skills building part in the beginning. So we always start with, you know, building small dogs or ducks or whatever, and then very gradually helping the participants to understand the language of Legos and how to build.

So we don’t, we don’t require anybody to be any good, have any skills in building Legos, with Lego bricks from previous- we even had clients from Asia who didn’t have the cultural background to know anything about Lego, and they still were able to join in the activities. So the skills building part is all about warm-up, warming the participants up and helping them to get into that state of flow, where they are much more likely to come up with creative ideas.

And then, once we have done the skills building part, we do several rounds of questions and I’m coming here with this thing about what the output needs to be, so the challenges are set according to the outputs that we need to come up with. And,everybody’s first to build their own individual models around the topic and then tell their story around the table.

They’re usually sitting in tables if we’re in a physical space with about six to eight or eight to 10 people, and then they will share their stories about their models. And everybody else is to listen very carefully. Even with their eyes because they need to ask questions about everybody else’s model so that they have everything clear to them that what was the other person’s views and what, the way they were thinking of there.

And then the second round usually is about creating a shared model out of these ideas. So we’re integrating all of everybody’s models together in a common model, and then try to create the connections between the different parts of this model. And one point actually is also to create more smaller models that they picked agents that affect this common model.

So, agents are not persons as you would think from the term, they could be people, but they could as easily be laws or budget, resources, I dunno, cultural  thinking, all of the things that might affect this common model in the future in some way.

Mary Drumond: Do you use Lego characters or is it just the blocks?

Sirte Pihlaja: Mini figs? We do actually. I’ve been, I don’t know, amassing huge amounts of mini-figs, uh, because most of my workshops, people are talking about customers or employees or partners or whatever when we’re talking about people experiences. But that is not a requirement because the main, one of the main things in like a serious play is that you might be talking through metaphors. So you might just do, you know, I don’t know, white brick signifying, you know, ice bear or dreams, or, you know, cold or whatever, depending on what your, what you, you give the kind of meaning for all the models that you create.

Mary Drumond: Do you find that there is, that people, when they reach that state of flow, that they kind of get, they kind of go to, and I’m going to say alternate universe, for lack of a better term. They get transported out of that day-to-day style thinking that tends to be really blocky and very in the box. Is this something that you see happening in these workshops?

Sirte Pihlaja: Every single time. Here’s what I think happens. And I often get, after the workshops, I get these people who are, there’s two kinds of people who come up to me after the workshops.

The first is the ones who say that, Oh my God, this was crazy. It was so energizing. I’m so, I feel so energized. I gave so much out of myself and never have been doing so much, you know, before. And then there’s the other people who say that, Oh, I was so, you know, I dunno restrained, or I didn’t think that I would like this exercise at all. And suddenly I realized that I was the one who was trying to be the first one to say something and the first one to, you know, build, and I just absolutely loved it. So I always get these positive responses and I personally feel so good after the workshop, even if I haven’t been building Lego myself, which is actually what I got to do this week, because I attended another training.

So it was great fun because I got to build myself.

Mary Drumond: So the tables turned and you were the one that had your hands in their building, right?

Sirte Pihlaja: Exactly. It feels so good. And also you get, it’s a good idea to participate in these sessions yourself. Sometimes not just as a facilitator because you get the participants’ view to things as well. So you might, you know, learn things, new things and develop your own facilitation skills from that

Mary Drumond: Have you always been an out of the box type person, or is this the first time in your life that you’re like, Oh my God, I’m doing something entirely different? Or is this normal for you at this point because you’re always doing things that are out of the box?

Sirte Pihlaja: Well, I must admit that I have always been some kind of crazy person somehow.

I was thinking about, you know, how now we think that these virtual events that we’re doing and virtual fairs and all of that, that that’s something 2020. But I was doing that even prior to my founding my own company, which was over 10 years ago. So we’re doing these virtual things, you know, Imagining the exact same things that we would have been doing during 2020.

So I, I don’t know. That’s just an example of what I’ve been doing. But I really both shine and love doing things where you’re thinking about imagining new possible futures and scenarios. And that’s one of the things we do with Lego, but it doesn’t require, as I say, you don’t, you don’t have to have to have that trail, you have to do that hole in the wall, basically.

Mary Drumond: Well, it’s really exciting. Now you don’t only run Lego serious play workshops. You also have a consulting firm, right? And you’re an author.

Sirte Pihlaja: Yes, that’s true. Three times author and two of my international books have become international bestsellers now. So I’m like, Whoa, it’s crazy. Yeah.

Mary Drumond:  And of those books, are they about serious play, or are they about surrounding topics?

Sirte Pihlaja: Customer experience, too. Both of them are collaborative books. So the first one I had 24 authors and the second one that just, just recently was published is written by 28 people.

So people from all around the world giving their best ideas and knowledge and insights about customer experiences. And my first chapter in CX2 was about Lego serious play, the role of play in business. And my case example was Lego serious play. So I was giving there lots of more examples of what you can do in real real life scenarios with Lego serious play.

And the second one is actually that I just wrote, it’s about culture, creating a customer centric culture, and CX transformation, cultural transformation in organizations.

Mary Drumond: Yeah. So this is a subject that’s really dear to you. I know you’re passionate about culture. So is that something that you include in your workshops or is this a separate thing?

Sirte Pihlaja: I wouldn’t, I couldn’t ever say that it’s a separate thing. That sounds really odd to me to say. Of course, if you, I don’t know, I can’t think right now of a scenario where you wouldn’t somehow be affecting the way that people need to, because it’s always about change management. You know, if you’re doing CX or UX related work in the first place. So yeah, I guess I’ve been- and I’ve also been invited to these international CX awards juries, and I’ve always opted for the category that has to do with culture, because that’s my favorite thing. So it’s easy, easy on the ears to listen to those stories.

Mary Drumond: And what’s it like working as a panelist or a judge for these events because you receive all this material and I imagine it’s really exciting to see what everybody’s doing in all these different corners of the world. Does it give you a sense of responsibility that you’re judging other people’s work and trying to highlight the people who were most innovative or most creative? What is it that you try to consider when you’re judging these case studies?

Sirte Pihlaja: Huh. That’s a good question. There are certain criteria in these awards, so you have to be judging according to those criteria. So, that kind of puts everybody into the same, I dunno, limits or books in that sense, but what I in general tend to focus more on is whether or not they’re really making a business case.

And if they have the figures to prove that there was a change that actually took place from doing a CX transformation. That’s one of the main things that I considered to be kind of proving or validating that the case is really, really exceptional. And so far, I must say that, in the categories where I have been judging, funnily enough, by the way, I think in every year that I have participated in, the winner of our category has also won the main CX award, which is like getting the best scores out of everybody. And we’ve seen some really good competitors there. But there is, there’s a big variance between the entries more often than not that it’s sort of easy to discern the ones that are, but then there’s two or three that are really good. And then between amongst those, it’s a little bit more difficult to find.

Do you find that you’ve seen a larger number of companies around the world that are doing customer experience right? Like really nailing it?

There are, and it’s funny that they come from all kinds of backgrounds and all industries.

So you can’t say that it’s a specific domain, that that’s where they know what they’re doing, or, you know, another one where they really suck at it. So that’s interesting, but then you can see that there are differences between regions. There are differences between, or maybe also the kind of companies that are sending their entries.

Mary Drumond: Do they tend to be more on the vendor side, like consulting firms, et cetera, preparing things for clients, or is it organizations with in-house teams that are building out these amazing projects?

Sirte Pihlaja: Oh, well, I can’t say for certain, of course that whether or not they have been helped, getting some help from some external companies, they won’t usually say that, but most of the interests that I have written out seem to be their internal work.

Mary Drumond: Is that exciting for you? When you see the customer experience has become an integral part of organizations, like for those of us who have been working in CX for a long time, we’ve kind of seen the transition from something very fluffy and just kind of all in theory, to what’s actually getting put into practice and making a difference in customer’s lives.

So part of that, is that some of the satisfaction that you get out of judging these projects?

Sirte Pihlaja: I would say yes. Take an example. I was one of the founding members of the CXPA, the customer experience professionals association, and I’m actually still running the CXPA in Finland, the activities since 2013 or something crazy. But the thing is that back then, you wouldn’t see it in any, I don’t know any, but I would say in any organization, a business card that would have the words customer and experience after one another. They would be just, you know, marketing directors or heads of customer service or this or that, depending on whether they are sitting on the sales side or the marketing side of things or researcher or whatever. Still is the case, it’s still the same.

But what I see more and more is that we have people who are in charge of customer experiences. And I know I’m saying customer and employee experiences, people experiences really, sitting on boards, management teams on boards of companies and organizations, which is something that I have been waiting for 10 years. So that’s a really good thing. Also, we do a state of customer experience management survey or study every year. This is the ninth or 10th year we’re running it now. And last year we took it to the international level and had a lot of people from abroad also. It was, prior to this, it was only on the Finnish market, but now we get more and more people to answer this benchmark.

It’s a free one. So just go online and take it and  getting the answer that there’s, out of the participants, almost 100% say that the reason why they’re doing customer experience is to differentiate themselves from their competition. And that’s a really good score of course. But then there are like, 82% who say that they have actual activities going on related to that.

And maybe a third that say that they have a CX strategy. So to me, I read that so that they don’t really know what they’re doing, the 50% or whatever, if it’s the same percentages. That what on earth are they doing if they don’t have a CX strategy? So that’s one thing that I think is very, very important.

Mary Drumond: Do you find that this can be one of the possible downfalls of CX if it’s not remedied? Where people are working, teams are being formed, executives are being put in place without an actual CX strategy in place.

Sirte Pihlaja: That’s something to ponder. I think it’s more a question of maybe that there are usually passionate people who want to, you know, drive CX up from the grass roots, upwards and all of that.

And they probably have some kind of plan in their heads, but as long as they don’t actually put this onto a paper, they will not get the resources that they need from their management teams and boards for doing anything. And also it will be a much more difficult for them to communicate to the whole organization what’s supposed to be happening. Because customer experience strategy is all about what kind of intentional customer experience history you want to create within that organization. So if you don’t put that somewhere and communicate, that it’s an easily communicated format to people, people will know what their roles are and what they’re supposed to be doing. So it’s going to be a random. And in some companies that might, you know, work because they happen to have recruited the people with just the right attitude. But most often than not, that’s not the case.

Mary Drumond: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I truly hope and I, from what I know about you and being a founding member of the CXPA and everything that you’ve done, all the work that you do, I hope that you will be one of the people that will lead this industry into an highly efficient, highly growth driven vertical.

And I want to thank you for coming here today and sharing with us about this amazing topic. But before you go, I know that in this virtual world that we live in, you are no longer limited to Finland anymore. You can work anywhere in the world.

So if there’s somebody listening right now that would be interested in having you come and build a workshop in their organization, how can they find you? How can they speak to you?

Sirte Pihlaja: Well, they can of course connect with me on LinkedIn. I’m there, Sirte Pihlaja, just look me up. And there’s a website for Lego serious play. It’s uh, Or then for, you know, Sirte, my company is So either of those ways is good to contact me. And we have been doing this online, these Lego serious play sessions as well. So just join us and let’s see what we can do together.

Mary Drumond: Awesome. Really exciting work. Thank you so much for coming and to our viewers and listeners. We’ll see you next time.

Sirte Pihlaja: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

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Mary Drumond

Mary Drumond

Mary Drumond is Chief Marketing Officer at Worthix, the world's first cognitive dialogue technology, and host of the Voices of Customer Experience Podcast. Originally a passion project, the podcast runs weekly and features some of the most influential CX thought-leaders, practitioners and academia on challenges, development and the evolution of CX.



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