In life, there are problems and there are conditions, and they are not the same thing.

Here is an example of what I mean:

My 16-year old son is 6’3” with an excellent vertical leap. He plays on a local club basketball team and, being the tallest player on his team and having an aggressive attitude, he is the starting center. Adrian is a very good player, averaging four or five blocked shots and 12-15 rebounds per game. There is a minor weakness in his game, however—when he pulls in an offensive rebound he tends to pass the ball back out to the perimeter rather than going straight up for an easy shot off the backboard.

Now imagine that Adrian’s goal was to play basketball in college and we were trying to prepare him to make a team. Teaching him to shoot off the rebound is something a coach can do relatively easily—it simply requires practice and training. If Adrian desires to play center on a college team, however, he faces a bigger challenge—he’s at least six inches too short. No amount coaching can make him six inches taller and because of this my son will never play center on a college basketball team.

In this situation, Adrian’s failure to shoot off the rebound is a problem—something that can be fixed; being 6’3” is a condition—something that can’t.

Addressing challenges is what leaders do. The challenges they are faced with are more complex than most, simply because the easy challenges get addressed before the reach the leader. Most of these challenges have multiple elements and identifying which elements are problems and which are conditions is an important place to start when crafting a solution.

Problems are typically those elements of a challenge that can be fixed by more skillful action—increasing competence, alternative methods, innovation, etc.; in Adrian’s case he needs to build better awareness of defenders under the net and train himself to think “shoot or pass” rather than only “pass.” Circumstances are elements that require either acceptance or a change of environment; Adrian can accept that he won’t play center in college and give up his dream, or he can switch to point guard and develop the requisite skills for that position.

As I write this article, a number of my clients are facing challenges related to the COVID-19 coronavirus, which is dramatically disrupting global supply chains. As companies sort through the impacts of the disruption, it does no good to confuse problems and conditions. One condition is that business is now global. No amount of complaining about globalism will put that genie back in the bottle. They have more control over the problems, however, and can take action on these—finding alternative vendors for today and improving supply-chain flexibility in the future; negotiating extended delivery timelines to their customers; initiating health and safety protocols for their employees; etc.

This may all seem very obvious, but becoming disciplined in differentiating between problems and conditions brings a couple of very important benefits.

Primarily, it provides a sense of control to those addressing the challenge. How many times do we see people or even groups become stymied because a situation feels overwhelming? They talk about a situation that is causing them grief, but never seem to do anything about it… If we fall into the trap of believing that a condition is a problem we become stymied because some part of our brain knows there is no solution. We then either avoid the situation completely or we waste time trying to fix things that can’t be fixed.

Separating those aspects of the situation that are not solvable from those that are (even if we don’t have the solution yet), is psychologically liberating and inspires productive and creative action.

So, next time you are faced with a challenge, take a moment to distinguish between the conditions and the problems, and see what impact it has—I think you’ll notice a difference.

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