How do they do it? Sue Rowlands, Tibbalds

Written by: Adam Branson
Published on: 9 Apr 2014
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Sue Rowlands

Sue Rowlands is one of four female directors who together run Tibbalds, a planning consultancy based in central London. She is an architect, town planner and urban designer who has led on masterplans such as the Lightmoor development on behalf of the Bournville Village Trust. She is also an expert in neighbourhood planning, design guidance and negotiation.

Q: What are your objectives in your current role and how are you measured against them?

A: The overall aim is making good places happen. We might be working for a house builder or a local authority, but at the end of the day what we’re trying to do is make stuff happen on the ground. We don’t have formal performance measures. We’ve got an in house quality management system – the sort of thing that all consultants have and that you’re asked to supply when you tender for jobs – but that’s the boring stuff. The more important measures are things like client feedback. Normally, we get our external PR consultants to do that for us. We find that it’s no good me going to ask a client I’ve been working with for months what they think, because they won’t say what they really mean. We like to get warts and all feedback. And even if you have done a near perfect job there will always be things you can learn from.

Q: What key lessons have you learned during your career that help you to fulfil these objectives?

A: Be honest when you don’t know the answer to something. I think that comes with confidence. When you start out as a junior planner or urban designer as I did at Tibbalds 20 years ago and you’re in a meeting with scary people and somebody asks you a question you try to bluster your way through. It never works. Instead, admit that you don’t know and go away and find out. I’ve worked in this line of work for 20 years and there are still plenty of things I don’t know, especially because the planning regime keeps on changing!

Face up to problems and deal with them creatively. Sometimes there’s a tendency for people to pretend that problems aren’t happening. But you need to confront them, think about them and then go and see the client about them and present three solutions and make clear recommendations. You don’t just present the problem; you present three ways of solving it, take the client through the pros and cons of each solution and make a recommendation. So much of what we do is about problem solving.

Think the unthinkable. Don’t dismiss an idea and reject it because on the surface it appears not to work. So, there might be a masterplanning solution that on the surface might be contrary to planning policy, but that might also do some really good things. So rather than dismiss it straight away, it’s worth exploring the benefits before taking the decision to reject an idea.