- The causes of the problems are not just complex but deeply ambiguous: you can't tell why things are happening the way they are and what causes them to do so (finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease).
- The problem doesn't fit neatly into any category you're encountered before; it looks and feels entirely unique, so the problem-solving approaches you've used in the past don't seem to apply (BP's efforts to come up with solutions to plug the leaking oil well).
- Each attempt at devising a solution changes the understanding of the problem; merely attempting to come to a solution changes the problems and how you think about it (developing policies and economic alternatives for combating global climate change).
- There is no clear stopping rule; it is difficult to tell when the problem is "solved" and what that solution might look like when you reach it (what the "end game" looks like with respect to the Afghanistan war).
Engineers are trained for the complex - - look at the situation, identify a set of definite conditions, and calculate a solution. The world of the wicked is entirely different - - the solution can no longer be the only or even the primary focus. The fundamental issue when dealing with wicked problems is a complete understanding of the nature of the problem itself. It is a world in which engineers and policy formulators must thrive on problem setting, at least as much a problem solving.
Petraeus falls into the rare category of indispensable and tackler of wicked problems - - those two attributes go hand in hand.