Key Learnings

  • Nowadays, everyone can be and is creative no matter the size of the business or the teams they work with
  • Clarity of purpose and no time wasted scrambling for information will support individuals in being as creative as possible
  • It is possible to combine the freedom of creativity with the framework of accountability with timesheets and other KPIs
  • Short deadlines can often produce great creative results, so long as you have a clear brief and the resources needed
  • Your role as a leader is to protect your team from confusion, frustration and isolation
Hot air balloon floating in background with bowler hat on top

Are start-up businesses more creative than established ones? Are small companies more creative than large ones? Steve Johnson from Synergist explores.

It’s often argued that it is so. The perception is that small businesses seem less restricted, have fewer procedures and don’t have the same relentless commercial pressures as large companies. Small businesses are seen to have more of a spirit of ‘we’re all in this together,’ with an added shot of playfulness thrown in. So all this sounds conducive to creativity.

Take timesheets, for example. In any time-and-project-based company, timesheets are a necessity. But creative people tend to dislike the idea. They think that working in a small business will be free from these and better for creativity generally.

But is all this really true? We attended a roundtable discussion on the topic, attended by leaders of successful UK creative agencies, to find out.

Creative people

One finding was that creativity isn’t only done by people with ‘creative’ in their job title. Today, everybody needs to be creative in some way, particularly in a digital age. So the question isn’t as clear cut as it looks.

Another is that creative people are not isolated. To produce work that clients like and value, on time, they need to see something of the bigger picture. Also, creative people crave clarity. They don’t enjoy being kept in the dark, or having to waste their time scrambling for information.

So they thrive better with clear knowledge about the brief, plus who else is working on the project, what the deadlines are and what’s been signed off by the client so far. This knowledge releases their mind to focus on the creativity work itself. Companies losing creativity during growth do so due to complexity, confusion and employee frustration, not simply because the company is larger as such.


So, creative people need information. Which means a software system, which means accurate timesheets. Wouldn’t that necessarily hamper the creative process?

No, says Simon Butler, co-founder and Chief Executive of LEWIS Purestone, a London-based creative agency that has certainly experienced growth over the years:

“We’re still shortlisted for as many awards as we always were. We have what we call Controlled Creativity. It’s creativity within a framework. Our team has the freedom to be creative, but to support that we have the metrics, the key performance indicators, for each project to work to budget, to specification and to brief.”

Plus it turns out that even small businesses need to have timesheets. And because small systems are very basic, the timesheets are hard to use, take more time, and are prone to errors. In contrast, smarter systems prompt the user, avoid many errors and can be filled in via smart phone when on the move.


Doesn’t ‘Controlled Creativity’ involve restrictions?

Yes. But try this thought experiment. Imagine that you are put into a room and given a creative brief with two days to complete the work. You have all the materials you need, and endless food and refreshments. The result? You would surely produce good-quality creative work.

Now, imagine if the deadline wasn’t two days but two months. Would that improve your creativity? Probably not.

Many creative types concede that short deadlines can produce great creative results, within practical limits of course. With short timescales you are more focused, immersed and fresh. Whereas if you’re given a much longer deadline, often nothing much really happens until the last period anyway, at which point panic kicks in.

So frameworks, and software, can be good for creativity during growth. They protect your team from confusion, they give them clear information as a team, and they show them the impact of their individual efforts on each project’s success. If your project starts to slip, it becomes obvious right away and more people and resources can be switched from other projects. Without all this, creatives can feel isolated and frustrated.

Can creativity be maintained during growth? Yes, and for reasons you might not expect.

Contributed by Steve Johnson
Abi Bentley-Cottam
Article by Abi Bentley-Cottam
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