Bowles & Wyer

Ask and Answer

Written by John Wyer

CEO, John Wyer, reflects on his inheritance of two different approaches – to question everything but also to really listen…

This has not been an easy time for any of us, but particularly for those who have lost loved ones. I am glad that my parents did not have to live through this – I lost them both within a few months several years ago. However, thinking about things over the past few weeks has caused me to re-evaluate what I owed to them and how much they had influence what I am; something I have never really put into words.

As a teenager, I must have been maddening. I did everything they told me not to (but of course that is the role of teenagers). Although bright, from the age of 15 onwards I systematically failed every exam. After eventually gaining a place at Manchester Poly (now MMU) to do Landscape Architecture – mostly on the strength of the interview, I later learned – I then drove the tutors mad by arguing about everything.

I now realise that this was a direct result of my upbringing. I was one of five children, and we were taught from an early age to question everything, take nothing for granted. Our family mealtimes were split 50/50 between uproarious laughter and fierce discussions around all sorts of subjects.

My father, in particular, was somebody for whom there were no ‘givens’. He would often argue a point of view just for the hell of it. You knew he didn’t really think that – you thought you could see a twinkle in the eye – but his forceful line of reasoning drove you to engage. Although sometimes exasperating, he was also a wise man. At one of the many points when I was struggling with the direction of my life, he told me: “You can’t steer a ship that isn’t moving. Start off in any direction and you’ll have a better idea about where you want to go.” After many years in business, he was always a good person to consult, and I miss his insights even now.

My mother, on the other hand, had a truly remarkable gift for understanding people, with a memory to match. At my 50th birthday party, she went around and talked to all my old college friends. Not only could she remember all their names, but she could recall what made up each of their final project submissions at college, almost 30 years before, often remembering the site they had chosen. Although she hated conflict, she was dogged in pursuing what she wanted, and almost always found a way to get it, often by gently persuading others that it was actually their idea.

I have learned, eventually, to reflect without pain on what I gained from them both. Reflecting on their lives and how they contributed to mine has been interesting. However, it is not as introspective as I thought. One of the things that has come out of this is the understanding of the validity of different approaches to problems and issues. In fact, I would go further than that: it is essential that we do not rely on one way of thinking, that we question again and again, and employ soft skills too.

I say “We” because often this is too much for one person to achieve, and one of the key things I have learned is the necessity of well-rounded teams, even if it is a team of just two.

That ‘question, question, question’ approach is particularly valid when applied to design. Never assume the ‘given’. Always look for the elusive ‘other’ solution. Often this comes unexpectedly, so be open to that. It pays not to be too rigorous in your approach, and allow things to creep up on you from just out of sight, from your subconscious. Question what the client says, question what the architect says. Question those who say it cannot be done.

But also, listen. Confronting people problems head on is rarely the best way of solving them, but everybody wants to be heard, and they love when you show you have been listening.


[This was originally published as an article in the Garden Design Journal in August 2020 as part of the ‘Just Saying’ series.]

September 28, 2020