BetaGov Blog


Dream Big, But First Think Small

A tree stump sprouting new leaves from its center

Date:   June 14, 2017

Our practitioner partners think of some incredible ideas to test. From placing air plants in prison cells to creating suicide-prevention trainings to finding new applications for virtual reality, it's safe to say innovation is alive and well in the public sector.

Some of these ideas are simple to execute as an RCT. Others are more complex.

When you're thinking strategically with the end goal in mind, it's easy to find yourself in the middle of a large, complicated trial design. Intuition would have us believe that if a small trial is good, a large trial is better. This, however, is not necessarily the case.

While we welcome all trial ideas and aren't afraid of a challenge, we also recognize the importance of the often-overlooked simple trial—low-hanging fruit.

With complexity comes complications. Logistical hurdles, leadership changes, and funding limits can squash a developing trial like a bug on a windshield. The simpler a trial is, the less likely you are to run into these obstacles.

Sometimes a larger trial is best broken down into a series of smaller trials. This can help you in the research process to avoid potential pitfalls and learn more from the data than by attempting a single trial with greater complexity.

For example, one trial in development started because of a correctional officer's passion to see his coworkers happier and healthier through fitness. His ultimate goal is for everyone at his workplace to adopt a healthy lifestyle, but we quickly realized that launching a full-scale wellness program wasn't immediately feasible. The number of moving pieces, several testable factors, and significant financial investment did not lend themselves to a smooth-running RCT.

We worked with this officer to narrow down the trial to one testable factor and designed a simple 30-day fitness challenge with 70 staff members. But this is by no means where the learning stops. We can use the results to develop a second fitness trial, and then a third. By breaking up a big idea into a series of simple trials, we can prevent unnecessary obstacles and move forward faster.

Starting with a simple trial has other benefits, too. It's likely you'll need to enlist your coworkers' or employees' assistance to run the trial and collect data. If you run a simple RCT first, others at your workplace gain experience with basic trial procedures. Fast results offer a quick win that can motivate people in your agency or organization to assist with the next trial, or even take the lead on their own.

If you have an idea to test but are wondering if it's feasible, we can help simplify and streamline it, or break it down into a series of trials. A good trial design doesn't have to be complicated. When it comes to research, simpler and smaller is sometimes better.