Skip to main content

You are here


The Not-Doing List

Practice Management

A medical director friend of mine from Yale recently shared an important story with me about his involvement with the AIDS epidemic in 1988-1989. 

“When the epidemic was at its height, two groups, one from Yale and the other from the World Health Organization (WHO), got together to just talk through ideas because clearly we were losing. AIDS popped up in the U.S. via a ‘patient zero’ who was a flight attendant. Things went crazy in the U.S., but they were far worse in Africa.

“We needed a new way of looking at the problem. A new solution—or set of solutions—was desperately needed. There was no agenda, just smart people in a room.

“When it came his turn, one physician who had actually spent time in Africa on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic (as opposed to the academics and politicians, and even the No. 2 guy at the CDC) was asked, ‘What’s the single thing you need the most?’

“His answer: ‘A truck with a full tank of gas.’

“It turned out that it wasn’t a shortage of medicine at all. In underdeveloped countries, people were dying simply because the majority of the population—who lived in villages well outside the major urban centers—had no means of transportation to the hospitals in the cities. Often, a few miles outside the cities there is no running water, no electricity, and often no reliable roads. People were dying because they couldn’t travel as little as 15 miles. 

“From a public health standpoint, Zimbabwe was considered a basket case. They had one of the top medical infrastructures in all of Africa—the hospitals in its capital, Harare, were considered just as good as those in Chicago. Yet it was the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, due to the transportation problem. It was impossible to get people with no electricity and water or mechanized transportation to the medicines that would help them. Hence, they died needlessly.

“There was talk of quarantining the entire country. People were afraid—even some in the medical community. It was before we knew the precise mechanism of transmission, so the first medical professionals going into Zimbabwe were making a statement just going there.

“The brilliant idea that was born that day was the simple but incredibly effective idea of using mobile aid clinics to bring the medicine to the villages throughout the country. This was a focused, AIDS-only effort in which thousands of units of medicine were loaded into dozens, and then hundreds, of mobile aid clinics complete with a doctor, a nurse and all the medicine the truck could hold.

“I had a chance to be part of that first-hand in Zimbabwe. It was revolutionary, and many years later, when WHO did an analysis of what helped turn the tide in the battle against AIDS, it was cited as nearly as important as the ‘triple cocktail’ of anti-viral drugs. One man saw the same problems as everyone else. But he envisioned a completely different solution.”

Read more commentary by Spencer X Smith here

Here’s the lesson from my friend Dave: Sometimes we overengineer solutions. And most often, we don’t need to.

How does this apply to a financial services practitioners and their companies? In the parlance of baseball, it’s all about getting your at-bats. A desire for a perfect solution oftentimes impedes our ability to participate in efforts that are good enough. What’s “good enough”? Showing up. And showing up often. 

Like the mobile aid clinics, we can’t forget that our success hinges on reaching people who need you and what you offer. And we don’t just need to reach them once. Our work is a process requiring multiple touchpoints. 

What are the vehicles we can use in our business development and marketing plans, then? Here’s one: I propose that you create a “Not-Doing List” to add to your strategic plan. A Not-Doing List will help you reconcile the tactics you’re knowingly avoiding.

This is an important distinction. Knowing what you’re not doing is far superior to avoiding the topic entirely. Should either you or your company be on Instagram? Maybe. But probably not. Ensure that you give yourself credit for thinking about it by adding it to your Not-Doing List. 

Imagine the following two scenarios. In an executive meeting, someone says, “I heard Instagram is a platform where a lot of people are spending their time, and many businesses are succeeding in using it. Should we be doing that?”

  • Scenario 1: You haven’t given Instagram a lot of thought, so your answer might just be, “I’m not sure.” That doesn’t exactly instill confidence in yourself or the person posing the question, right?
  • Scenario 2: Instagram is on your Not-Doing List. You answer, “I’ve heard that about Instagram too. In fact, I use it myself. From a strategic plan standpoint, it’s on our ‘Not-Doing List’ because our efforts are concentrated on other platforms.” 

With most clients, we have a Not-Doing List that far exceeds their To Do List. And that’s a great place to be. Options are unlimited in modern-day marketing, but time and money are not. 

Your strategy can emulate the simple, mobile aid clinic initiative described by my friend Dave: Deliver the right solution where the people are located. The roads we can use to get there vary substantially, but thanks to a Not-Doing List, you have a map of the roads you’re choosing not to take. 

Spencer X Smith is the founder of AmpliPhi Social Media Strategies. He’s a former 401(k) wholesaler, and now teaches financial services professionals how to use social media for business development. This column originally appeared in the Spring issue of NAPA Net the Magazine.