Tom Ricks's Inbox
Tom Ricks's Inbox

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Some observers have taken a page from urban planning theory to describe Iraq as a "wicked problem" -- a term coined to describe complex and divisive issues, such as building a new highway through a city or finding a location for a large homeless shelter.

Here is one expert's explanation of the rules governing this kind of conundrum. They do indeed seem to illuminate the current U.S. policy impasse in Iraq:

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1. You don't understand the problem until you have developed a solution.

Every solution that is offered exposes new aspects of the problem. . . .

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.

. . . The problem-solving process ends when you run out of resources, such as time, money, or energy, not when some optimal or "final and correct" solution emerges. . . .

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.

They are simply "better," "worse," "good enough" or "not good enough."

4. Every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel.. . .

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation."

. . . This is the "Catch 22" about wicked problems: you can't learn about the problem without trying solutions, but every solution you try is expensive and has lasting unintended consequences which are likely to spawn new wicked problems.

The entire essay, "Wicked Problems and Social Complexity," by management consultant Jeffrey Conklin, is available at


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T om Ricks is The Post's military correspondent. This feature aims to give readers

a snapshot of the conversations about Iraq, Afghanistan and other matters that

play out in his e-mail inbox. (Documents are reprinted verbatim, so don't blame

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