On a dreary, cool spring day in Zirndorf, Germany, I finally realized a childhood dream of visiting the Playmobil headquarters. The feeling was relatively bittersweet, as I ate a Wiener schnitzel for lunch, alone on a weekday, in the beer garden at the uncrowded Playmobil FunPark, next door to the corporate offices. Playmobil had been my favorite toy as a kid, though it’s been four decades since my parents brought home my first set — a Wild West fort — from a trip abroad, before it was widely available in the United States. My own kids are teenagers now and have no time for the Playmobil Vikings or pirates or Arctic explorers or airport we used to play with together when they were younger — something I miss. They never even want to set up the Playmobil remote control train station during the holidays anymore. Everything remains boxed up in the basement.
The situation didn’t seem all that optimistic inside in the Playmobil offices, either. One of the first things I discussed with Björn Seeger, the company press officer, was the recent collapse of Toys R Us, during which the toy chain filed for bankruptcy and later shut down 735 American stores. “In 2018, we had quite a disruption with Toys R Us,” Seeger said. “We lost 13,000 meters of retail shelf space, overnight.” Playmobil has recovered somewhat in the American market, but the company is still feeling the squeeze.
I’d come here to check out a product that Playmobil would soon launch, called Playmobil Pro — “an innovative modelling system for professionals,” as the company had described it. The idea, apparently, was to bring Playmobil figures into offices so employees could creatively “role play” or “find new business solutions” or “visualize stakeholders” or “bring theoretical discussions to life.” According to the sales materials, the same toys you loved as a child now “can also be used by adults in the frame of a professional context to aid in prototyping, project management, creative workshops and much, much more.” The kit was developed in cooperation with such organizations as Deutsche Bank, Adidas, Daimler’s Joint Think Tank and the Barcelona School of Management.
Seeger and I sat in a white-walled conference room surrounded by large versions of smiling Playmobil figures: a knight with a shield; a pirate with a bandanna and dagger; an indeterminate figure wearing a cap, flannel shirt and vest while holding a golf club. (Possibly a Playmobil tech executive?) The Playmobil Pro case sat in the middle of a table; it had drawers for figures, costumes, accessories, sticky notes and pens. Instead of the usual colorful Playmobil figures, the ones in the kit were completely white — without skin, hair, clothing colors or facial expressions. “The classic Playmobil figure has a smile, and maybe that’s not always great for business,” Seeger said. Earlier tests with an array of skin and hair colors had immediately seemed problematic for group dynamics across many different countries. “It quickly became apparent that plain white figures would distinguish Playmobil Pro,” he said. The kit comes with erasable pens that allow people to personalize the figures by drawing on them.
The costumes and accessories in the kit brought back a wave of nostalgia. Police hat, pirate hat, construction hard hat, knight helmet, motorcycle helmet; capes, backpacks, swim fins; shopping cart, bicycle, skateboard; shovel, hammer, swords, ax, umbrella, tuba, guitar, fire extinguisher, soccer ball, tennis racket; dog, raccoon, goose, skunk, pig, pony, sheep, frog; treasure chest, globe, golden chalice, silver coins — these little, everyday, bourgeois details are Playmobil’s charm. As Seeger and I spoke, I idly clicked different hats on the figures and clipped props into their hands.
“There’s an emotional attachment,” Seeger said. “Many had this experience with Playmobil in childhood.” He talked about how the so-called kidult market — adults who buy toys for themselves — has become one of the biggest growth areas of the toy industry. By some estimates, about a quarter of all toys and games are purchased by adults for themselves. “It’s a huge market, selling toys to adults,” he said. “Gen X is so happy to buy something to remind them of their childhood. So why don’t we transfer this into a business context?”
When a video of the initial Playmobil Pro prototype was posted on LinkedIn in early 2019, it went viral, with more than 35,000 views in five days. Requests for the kits flooded in. “We were all completely shocked,” says Victoria Dobbie, a member of the Playmobil Pro design team. “Now we had to do something with it.”
It was quite a leap from selling adults childlike guilty pleasures to bringing those toys into the workplace. But Playmobil Pro isn’t alone in this niche market. In fact, thanks to its rivals at Lego, it had a model to follow. For at least two decades, Lego has been finding its way into corporate settings, and a whole methodology called Lego Serious Play has emerged. A corporate trainer, called a certified Lego Serious Play facilitator, brings a pile of Lego into a conference room and guides a team of employees through building exercises meant to spur new ideas and, according to the Lego website, “unlock imagination and innovation.”
The concept — developed in the 1990s at the Denmark-based toy company in collaboration with two Swiss academics, Johan Roos and Bart Victor — was based on research showing that our hands are connected to 70 to 80 percent of our brain cells. By 2010, there was an independent Association of Master Trainers for Lego Serious Play and a well-established certification process. At that point, the company made the methodology “open source,” meaning facilitators were free to use it without licenses from Lego. While the knowledge may be free, the company still sells official Serious Play kits for nearly $800 each. Playmobil Pro, for its part, retails for around $600 and will be available in the United States next month.
One of the first things Playmobil did was send beta versions to experts: certified Lego Serious Play facilitators around the world. I spoke with a fellow named Guy Stephens, based near London, a facilitator who uses Lego Serious Play in his job as a corporate trainer for one of the world’s largest technology companies. As Stephens sees it, using toys in corporate settings can have significant benefits. “It takes people to a deeper, more emotional level,” he explains. “There’s a level of empathy. It’s a much safer space to ideate.” He was attracted to the new Playmobil Pro kit but unsure what its application would be, precisely. “With Lego Serious Play, you play around with a lot of metaphors,” he told me. “A brick can be anything you want it to be. A red brick can represent democracy, or can represent a cake. The application may be narrower for Playmobil. Because you have literally a figure of a person, it’s very hard to break away from that. The opportunity for it to all go wrong is greater.”
Unlike Lego, Playmobil has developed no methodology for how to use Playmobil Pro in a business situation. “We don’t want to say, ‘This is Playmobil Pro and this is how you use it.’ We’re quite open to seeing how it’s developed,” says Dobbie. “People will come to us to make suggestions and tell us what they need.”
Of course, whether anyone actually needs Playmobil — or Lego for that matter — in a business setting is another question entirely. What role could toys possibly play in the types of serious, adult decisions that need to be made in the workplace? It may all seem like odd territory for toy companies, but Playmobil was barreling ahead. Stephens was planning a workshop in the fall to test-drive Playmobil Pro, and invited me to come. That’s how I ended up at a Legoland near London, spending the day with a group of professional adults, playing with toys.
Legoland Windsor Resort is about 25 minutes from Heathrow Airport. I arrived there on a Tuesday morning in October, still jet-lagged, and waited for a few minutes in the noisy hotel lobby. More than a dozen excited kids were shouting and running around, hopping in and out of a giant play box in the middle of the room that was filled with thousands of Lego bricks. Some built little towers or animals or stuck minifigures into cars, boats or spaceships. Some just happily scooped up Lego pieces and threw them at one another. While their haggard parents waited to check in, bricks became strewn all over the lobby floor. Finally, Stephens fetched me and led me upstairs to a much quieter conference area, where there was coffee and pastries and a large round banquet table piled with Legos.
The group Stephens organized for the workshop consisted of a half-dozen consultants and experts in workplace creativity, using methodologies with names like Play to Innovate or Systematic Inventive Thinking — offshoots of the concept of “design thinking” pioneered at MIT and Stanford in the 1950s. Several work with the same Lego Serious Play methodology as Stephens.
Over coffee and introductions, they bantered. “The first workshop I ever did, my colleagues said, ‘Let us just tell you, all team-building is bulls---,’ ” said Charles Woolnough, a program director at a major video game company and a certified Lego Serious Play facilitator. There were knowing chuckles.
Stephens told me, “You absolutely get skeptics who walk into a room and say, ‘Oh God, not another consultant,’ or ‘I’m paying you X thousands to play with Lego?’ But then they walk out and say, ‘Wow, that was amazing.’ ”
Our group took places around the table, and Stephens ran us through a warm-up exercise. Typically, the facilitator poses a question or presents a challenge, then the group has a time limit to build something in response. Then each presents or tells their story. Finally there is time for reflection.
To start, we were each given bags with six identical yellow, white and red pieces, and Stephens asked us to build a duck. Even though I’ve put together dozens of Lego kits for my own kids over the years, I usually follow printed directions. I didn’t realize, for instance, that two of the pieces were the duck’s “eyes” until time was up. “What this shows is that you got the same six pieces, but you’ve all interpreted a duck in your own way,” Stephens said.
Everyone’s duck looked just as chaotic as mine, except for the one built by Woolnough. He’d clearly done this before and made his duck precisely as Lego’s instructions illustrate. “I once did this duck exercise with 65 people and not two of them were the same,” he said.
For the next exercise, I was paired with Ben Mizen, a lecturer in business and management at Solent University in Southampton, England, and also a certified Lego facilitator. Mizen and I were to build a metaphor that described our Mondays and used only four Lego pieces. I rummaged in the pile of bricks and built a bridge, with blue and gray pieces, which was meant to convey the prosaic idea that I had flown across the Atlantic the day before. Mizen went even more abstract, showing a ladderlike model — with green, yellow, blue and orange pieces — that he said expressed his need for structure in a workday. To be honest, I couldn’t really follow along, but I appreciated that this had a lot of meaning for him. Mine felt overly simplistic next to his.
Next we were asked to take our same model and give it some other meaning. My mind went blank as I stared at my bridge. All I could think about was a river. Then, oddly, Bruce Springsteen’s “The River.” When the time limit ended, I blurted out, “This reminds me of my favorite song, Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The River.’ ” This is absolutely not my favorite song, but I felt compelled to say so, to give my banal thought some kind of meaning. This did, however, lead me into telling a true story of how one night in a pub, a musician who was singing “The River” forgot the lyrics, and I stood up and sang them for him. It felt weird that my reaction to this exercise — basically, pretending that being a Springsteen fan was central to my identity — actually brought me to this oddly personal moment.
Mizen nodded his head enthusiastically and said, “Great! That’s really good!” Then he explained that his model was a spaceship, with the green piece being the earth, the blue the sky, the yellow the sunlight, and the orange “representing something like man’s pointless endeavors.”
Thinking about “man’s pointless endeavors” now made me feel even more self-conscious about my own response. “This is kind of stressful,” I said to the group. I got a look of empathy from Dave Temple, whose company Myndflo makes an eco-friendly version of sticky notes. “It can feel a little forced sometimes,” Temple said.
“Yes, we want you to be stressed,” said Yesim Kunter, a toy designer and “play futurist” who conducts Innovation Through Play workshops. “Play is all about vulnerability. To be creative, you need to be playful. People need to give permission to themselves for more playfulness.”
“Changing the mode from linear to the creative, I get it,” said Greg Stadler, U.K. managing director of Systematic Inventive Thinking, a company that promotes a method — created in Israel in the 1990s — of developing “innovative ideas on demand.” “But,” he added, “what do you do if people are really bad at this?” I wondered if this comment was possibly directed at me.
Stephens reminded us that things could be abstract. “A brick can be anything,” he said. “It can be a polar bear, it can be democracy, it can be a cake.”
Woolnough said that the real value was in discovering something brand new while building. “You can’t prepare your answers when you’re doing a model,” he said. If bosses “don’t want to hear what everyone thinks, don’t use this technique. Also, if you want to tell them what to think, don’t use this method.”
For the final warm-up exercise, Stephens asked us to build in response to a question: A car is an example of what? I grabbed all the craziest Lego pieces from the pile that I could find — translucent pink and yellow pieces, propellers, flags — and built a tricked-out fantasy car, the sort of car I would have actually made when I was 7 years old. “Status symbol,” I said when it came time to present.
“Man’s inhumanity to man,” said Woolnough, presenting a sort of car-centaur, with half a minifigure stuck on a car. “He’s destroyed his legs by driving instead of walking.”
Mizen built on a similar theme. He’d put a drain on top of his car. “It’s a drain on resources,” he said.
Yesim had built a sort of tall, colorful tower. “I don’t drive,” she said. “I usually just watch cars running around. I like watching things in action.”
Stephens seemed satisfied with how we’d gone about the warm-up sessions. “This was to level-set everyone,” he said.
After a break, it was time to move on to the main reason we all had gathered that day. In a separate corner of the room, he had set up the Playmobil Pro kit. He invited everyone to gather around and familiarize ourselves with the pieces. There had apparently been numerous small tweaks during the beta testing. A robot and a drone had been added. A Native American “chief” headdress had been removed. (Seeger, the Playmobil press officer, told me the decision to remove the headdress had been made internally when an executive said, “Are you out of your mind?” Playmobil may be particularly sensitive to matters of race after a controversy in 2015 over its pirate ship set, which had a dark-skinned character wearing a slave collar.)
Our group seemed impressed. “Top marks for the kit, because it’s a nightmare to sort 2,000 pieces of Lego,” Woolnough said. Mizen put it this way: “I love that Playmobil has just said, ‘Here it is, have a go!’ ” A few in the group voiced some concern about whether Playmobil Pro could reach the level of abstraction and metaphor of Lego Serious Play. Stephens took a white figure and put a jester hat on it. “This can represent a jester,” he said. “But it can also represent anarchy.”
When I’d visited the Playmobil headquarters in the spring, the company’s rivalry with Lego loomed over the entire conversation. There was talk, for example, of “Playmobil: The Movie,” a long-awaited, $75 million extravaganza voiced by Jim Gaffigan, Adam Lambert, Meghan Trainor and Daniel Radcliffe. No doubt the company hoped to chase the same massive success that “The Lego Movie” had achieved in 2014. But “Playmobil: The Movie” was a flop: Its U.S. premiere in December earned only an estimated $668,000, the third-worst opening ever for a movie released on more than 2,000 screens. The Hollywood Reporter called it a “generic and lifeless promotional tool.” Variety said it “never transcends its blatant product-flogging.” And, perhaps most painfully, from the Times of London: “But much like the Playmobil toys, with their poky feet and weird, lobster-like hands, ‘Playmobil: The Movie’ is similar but inferior to the Lego equivalent.” Ouch.
Playmobil seems perpetually overshadowed by the popularity of Lego. Why hadn’t Playmobil, I’d wondered, gone into licensing agreements and video games, the way that Lego had over the past decade, partnering with Star Wars, Harry Potter, SpongeBob SquarePants and Marvel? “Well, we are much smaller than Lego. We would not have been able to afford that,” Seeger said. But then he asked: “Do you need these licenses as a toy brand? Or can be it more about the child’s own imagination?”
In theory, I agree with him. Playmobil’s virtues for me have long resided in its more generic, less flashy scenarios. It’s a quirkier toy — one that I’ve always believed appeals more to parents than their kids. Who but an adult could appreciate wry miniature details like a construction crew that comes with a case of beer and a porta-potty, a bakery with four specific types of bread (rye, wheat, sourdough and baguettes), a timber lodge with a lederhosen-clad innkeeper playing an accordion and pulling draft beers from the tap? What child would want a Playmobil Hazardous Materials Team set (with respirators and hazmat suits), a Playmobil Security Check Point (with metal detector and luggage X-ray machine) or a Playmobil Woodshop Class (with a bearded teacher overseeing two children with saws and a drill press)?
Consider also that Playmobil has done a solid business making replica sets of famous works of art, such as Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” or Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid,” both co-branded souvenirs sold at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. Or that, remarkably, the best-selling Playmobil figure of all time — with over 1.3 million sold since its release in 2015 — is Martin Luther, complete with quill and German Bible.
No wonder Playmobil never seemed quite as cool as Lego. Yet perhaps the same sense of whimsy and weirdness that might hold Playmobil back with contemporary children could prove to be a strength in the adult world of workplace toys.
Indeed, as I was seeing at Legoland Windsor, a certain kind of quirkiness was, for people using toys in a corporate setting, very much the name of the game. The first Playmobil Pro exercise that Stephens asked our group to do was simple: Take a figure, add whatever accessories we’d like, and label the figure as we saw ourselves. I fished around in the pile of accessories with the others. It was now clear that many of the items were meant to build metaphors: snake or spider for “fear,” a crown for “boss,” a hand mirror for “self-reflection,” a globe for, well, “global.” But how did I see myself? Slow? Old-fashioned? A traveler? Fond of wine? Pretentious? Somewhat ridiculous? I grabbed a pirate hat, a map and a golden chalice. I cringed and wrote “Artisan” on my figure.
Woolnough presented first. He’d written “Fixer” on his figure, which wore a cavalry hat and held a vacuum cleaner (“for mopping up”) and a lantern (“this is me shining a light”). Temple had written “Innovation” on his, which wore a superhero cape (“I’m trying to create supermen”), and had drawn a smile on his figure’s face. Kunter had written “Magic Creator” on hers, which held flowers and rode a skateboard. Stadler presented the most involved figure, which had a megaphone, binoculars, a wizard’s hat, a treasure chest with coins and a pickax (“I help mine for new ideas”). “I am Solutions Finder,” he said.
We were then asked to build a figure that presents how we believe others may see us. I figured I may as well be honest and wrote “Troublesome” on my figure. I attached a winter hood, suggesting that I’m too closed-off, a suitcase for all my baggage, and a tuba, representing that I often have too loud of a voice. I guess I was trying to be cheeky, at first, but I’d also arrived at some truth.
I found it strange how simply adding tiny accessories to a blank Playmobil figure had caused a level of introspection. Yet everyone else at the table was equally, surprisingly self-critical. Kunter had chosen a small child figure who rode a lion. “People think of me as like a child, and not letting people get too close,” she said. Temple’s figure was pushing a shopping cart overflowing with accessories (“I’m someone with lots of ideas but sort of unorganized”). Woolnough had written “Old” on his, which wore a cowboy hat, held a boombox and rode a fox. (“People see me as too old-school, and smart at working the system.”)
During the reflection period, there was great excitement about the applications for Playmobil Pro. “I had my reservations that Playmobil Pro might not have the same opportunities for riffing,” Mizen said. “But wow, this is great for role play.”
“Yes,” Kunter said. “This is a user journey.”
“I like that the person is the biggest thing here,” Mizen said. “The HR applications for this are stunning.”
“To me, Playmobil seems a little less abstract than the Lego,” Temple said.
The only note of skepticism came from Stadler, who said, “This is great. But at what point do you put down the toys and start working?”
Next, Stephens suggested we all focus on a real-life dilemma. Could we build a model with Playmobil Pro to improve the flow of immigration and passport control at Heathrow? I had just been through the tediously long line the day before, with dozens of people waiting for a single agent to stamp passports. I grabbed as many of the figures as I could and lined them up. “How about more agents?” I said. Stadler lined up a row of computer monitors and said they represented body scanners that led figures into one of two lanes. Someone said this felt like “the subdued faceless violence of the state.” We all decided maybe fixing Heathrow’s immigration problems might be too grand of a task for Playmobil Pro. Perhaps if any of us had worked in the airline or transportation industries, or in law enforcement, this might have been more effective. But as it stood, there was a limit to how the toys might solve Heathrow’s problems.
We decided it was time for a break, though the facilitators continued to give feedback on Playmobil Pro. “We have to push metaphor to get meaning,” Mizen said. “I think Playmobil feels a little more personal than Lego,” Woolnough noted. “Mixing the Playmobil and the Lego together could be powerful?” Kunter suggested.
After the break, the group went back to the Lego table. Stephens asked us to model what it might look like for a company to recruit talent. First we built our own models, and then we were asked to join together the most important piece of each. Again, there was a lot of abstraction: strings connecting team members, clear window pieces representing transparency in the hiring process, sharks as people to avoid, a monkey representing fun or what someone called “the joy of working.”
Then Stephens moved us all back to the Playmobil table and asked, “What is a potential candidate looking for in our company?” We all took the plain white figures and dug into the pile of accessories. One person gathered up shovels, brooms, axes (“she wants the right tools to do a good job”). Another surrounded his candidate with other figures (“she wants to feel like part of a team”). Someone else grabbed clocks, an umbrella, a snake, a robot. Another put a crown on the figure, a bugle in her hand. I put a helmet on my figure (“security”) and set her on a bicycle (“advancement”), a watering can in one hand (“growth”) and, of course, a stack of euros in the other (“money”). It was noteworthy that all of the men had chosen female figures for this exercise. For a group of consultants who work with human resources and corporate training, that choice seems obvious; any company not actively recruiting or promoting women is simply out of step with society and the marketplace.
But did we actually need toys to show us this — or to clarify any of the other ideas about business, teamwork and self-actualization that we had been playing around with using not-so-subtle metaphors and imagery? That, I suppose, would be the cynical view of this strange corner of corporate life. Or perhaps by requiring us to clip whimsical little props into the tiny hands of figures reminiscent of childhood, Playmobil and Lego create just enough distance for us to leave our everyday minds. And if that’s true, then maybe quirky exercises with these toys really can lead to more meaningful, free-form and natural conversations about thornier issues.
After spending several hours with professional toys, I’m still not entirely sure which version I believe. I do know that by the end of this exercise I was dazed. When it was time to present our Playmobil models of potential candidates, everyone at the table looked exhausted. Kunter sighed and said, “It’s such a tiring thing to do play.”
Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Christian Font.