Carol's Life Crisis

An example of using a grid to support a personal decision-making process based on Chapter 5 of Think Again (Shaw and McKnight, 1981).

The Problem Situation

Carol is a middle-aged housewife who is in a rut. The worst part is, she knows she is in a rut but can't think clearly enough to get out of it. Her husband works long hours as a successful self-employed businessman and her son has gone away to school, so she sits at home thinking, and her thoughts seem to go round and round in circles. Carol has arrived at what we might call a crisis point in her life. She feels it is time for a change, but is not sure in which direction she ought to go.

Developing a Grid to Help Resolve the Problem

One day, Carol's thoughts and feelings are so pressing that she decides she cannot continue without sorting them out. Her mind is so jumbled that she cannot just sit down and think out her problems. She decides to try using a grid so that she can at least look at her problem objectively. She hopes that the exercise may help break her out of her rut.

Carol's rut is one born of habit, but it has not always been that way. Before Carol and her husband John were married, Carol had a job as personal assistant to the director of an engineering firm. Her job meant long hours. But every day was different, and often she was taken to dinner by her boss on business occasions. Indeed, it was on one such occasion that she met John who, at the time, was starting his own business.

After a brief romance, Carol and John were married. A year later their son was born. Carol had given up her job shortly after they were married, and once their son was born, she found that mothering was a full-time job. John spent all his waking hours working to build up his business.

Now, eighteen years later, Carol's son has just left home for university and Carol now realizes that she has spent all that time serving her family's needs. John is still working all day, every day, even though his business is now thriving. Work has become a habit to John; he fears his business would collapse if he worked less. Now the only times Carol meets people are either when she shops or when John brings business associates home for dinner.

Carol feels that there is not a "mental" solution to her problem—she must do something. The trouble is she doesn't know what to do. She decides to use WebGrid to help her consider her problem and starts a new grid as shown below.

She enters her purpose as "to think about possible courses of action to improve my life", the entities relevant to he purpose as "possibilities", and the distinctions relevant to it as "consequences" as shown below.

WebGrid then asks her to list significant possibilities as shown below.

Possible Courses of Action as Grid Elements

The first possibility that occurs to Carol is that she could get a job again. Her typing and shorthand used to be very good, and she is sure it would take her very little time to brush up on them. The local university often has vacancies for secretarial staff, so she is fairly sure she could get a job.

Upon reflection, Carol decides that she really has two possibilities here. She knows that there are often part-time secretarial jobs available at the university, so she lists her first two possibilities as "take a full-time job" and "take a part-time job." Any job would give her some money that she could spend as she wished. Obviously, a full-time job would give her more money than a part-time job, but a part-time job would leave her with more free time.

Thinking about the university leads Carol to another possibility. Although she is now middle-aged she knows that it might be possible for her to become a student. She had always encouraged her son to get as good an education as possible because she felt that she had not been given such an opportunity. However, when she took her son to one of his college interviews, she was surprised to find that a few of his fellow interviewees were closer to her age than his! Talking to them while she waited for her son, she discovered that it was not uncommon for social science departments to accept mature students. Her son was majoring in sociology, but she thought that she would prefer psychology, having always maintained an interest in people and their behavior. She would like to study the subject formally, although she now finds the idea of a full-time program a little daunting. As her third possibility she lists "take a psychology course."

The doubt Carol feels about taking such a course leads her to her fourth element. She knows there are many night school classes that she could attend. They could involve not only academic but leisure interests, for example, guitar playing, dress making, and so forth. Rather than make her mind up now, Carol simply lists "take an evening class" as her fourth possibility.

Carol misses the daily contact with her son, something she has had for the past eighteen years. With John working such long hours, she sometimes does not see another human being from one day to the next. In short, she is often lonely.

At her age, Carol knows that she is a little old to have another baby. She is still physiologically able to give birth, but she knows that the risk of having a handicapped child is greater at her age. However, she could easily foster a child. This would give her contact with a child again, but it would also mean continuing in a serving role. She has not discussed the idea with her husband yet, but the idea is appealing enough for her to include it as her fifth possibility as shown below.

These possibilities seem somewhat mundane and Carol then begins to think of more exotic ones, clicking on "Add more possibilities" to enter them.

Another way she can think of to counteract her loneliness relates to the lack of contact she has with her husband. A few weeks ago, John brought Mike, a business associate, home to dinner. During the course of the evening, Mike (a single man) was very flattering to Carol, particularly when John was out of the room. On the basis of this encounter, Carol is fairly confident that she could at least have an affair with Mike if she wanted to. She is not sure whether such an involvement would be only a temporary answer to her problem. She has no way of knowing at this stage whether Mike would be interested in a permanent relationship and is not sure herself whether she wants to leave her husband, but she decides to include "have an affair" as her sixth element. Because of her uncertainty about staying with John, she decides to include "leave husband" as her seventh element.

Carol decides to include the possibility of emigrating as her eighth element. She has a married sister in England and has enjoyed holidays there without John. She knows John would not leave the United States, so going to England would mean leaving him. However, it would be a different type of separation than if she simply moved out of their house and stayed in the same neighborhood. The latter would be a possibility if Mike were interested in a long-term relationship.

As a final element, Carol decides to include "carry on as before." She is prepared to believe that her present worries may just fade away, that she is just overreacting to small changes and that she will adapt to her new situation. However, she is not very confident that she can adapt. The pressure she feels seems to demand action, but she doesn't want to rush into any action she might later regret.

Possible Consequences of Action as Grid Constructs

WebGrid now gives Carol the opportunity to think about the important consequences that might result from her different possible courses of action.

Carol thinks about what would be improvements in her life and realizes she wants more independence and enters this as an important consequences.

She also wants more excitement to make life less humdrum. She clicks on "Add more consequences" and describes this consequence.

She cannot think of any other important consequences immediately and clicks on "Done" to let WebGrid continue.

WebGrid lists the possibilities she has entered and the important consequences she wishes to consider, and offers her the opportunity to add more before she begins to rate the possibilities in terms of their consequences.

She is content with what she has done and clicks "Done" to move on to the next phase of the elicitation.

Rating the Possibilities in Iterms of the Consequences

WebGrid asks her to rate all the possibilities she has entered on her first consequence dimension.

Carol clicks on the popup menu next to "take a full-time" job and rates this as "5 gain in independence" as it will very much help her achieve this objective.

She goes on to rate each of the other possibilities in terms of this consequence.

She clicks on "Update" and WebGrid sorts the possibilities according to her ratings so that she can see which possibilities offer greater independence and decide whether she has rated them appropriately or whether she wishes to change any ratings.

What she has done makes sense to her so she clicks on "Done" and WebGrid asks her to rate her possibilities her second consequence, that they might be humdrum or exciting.

She is content with her ratings and clicks on "Done".

Elicitation of Consequences by Considering Similarities and Differences in Triads of Possibilities

WebGrid presents her with three of her possibilities, "take a psychology course", "take a full-time job" and "take a part-time job", asking her in what way two are alike and different from the third.

The first thing that occurs to her is that both the job possibilities are alike in that they would provide her with some money, but taking the course differs because it would actually cost her money. She enters this information.

Carol then clicks on "Add consequence", and WebGrid asks her to rate her possibilities in terms of the consequences, "cost more money—make more money", having already rated the three possibilities she has already considered.

Carol rates the other possibilities and changes the rating on "take a part-time job" because she will make less money part-time.

She clicks on "Done" and WebGrid presents her with another three of her possibilities, "take an evening class", "foster a child" and "have an affair." In this case, the evening class and the affair possibilities seem similar because Carol knows that she could stop them both if she found that they were not what she wanted. On the other hand, fostering seems irreversible. It would be emotionally unfair to the fostered child to change her mind once the process had begun.

Again, WebGrid asks her to rate the remaining possibilities in terms of these consequences.

She clicks on "Done" and WebGrid presents her with another three of her possibilities, "leave husband," "emigrate," and "carry on as before." She knows that both leaving her husband and emigrating would disrupt John's life, but if she simply carries on as before, she is fairly sure that he will do the same.

Again, WebGrid asks her to rate the remaining possibilities in terms of these consequences.

WebGrid's Main Page and Analysis of Carol's Conceptual Model

When Carol clicks on "Done", WebGrid takes her to its main page where it has already begun to analyze her conceptual model of her possibilities and their consequences.

The top five sections suggest various actions she might take next. The first section gives her the option to have WebGrid choose what she does next, or to provide her with other choices. The second section notes that the possibilities "take a psychology course" and "take an evening class" are very similar in their consequences and asks whether she wants to enter another consequence that might distinguish them. The third section notes that the consequences "no gain in independence—gain in independence" and "wouldn't disrupt John—would disrupt John" are very similar, and asks whether she wants to enter another possibility to distinguish them. The fourth section asks whether she can think of a consequence that distinguishes between the three possibilities, "take a part-time job", "take a full-time job" and "have an affair". The fifth section asks whether she can think of a consequence that distinguishes between the two possibilities "take a full-time job" and "have an affair.

All of these questions and suggestions are based on the possibilities, consequences and ratings that Carol has entered, and indicate aspects of her conceptual model that will help her to think about possible courses of action to improve her life.

The sixth section shows an outliner arrow. If she clicks on it the possibilities she has entered will be shown, giving her the opportunity to add, delete, edit or sort possibilities.

The seventh section also shows an outliner arrow. If she clicks on it the consequences she has entered will be shown, giving her the opportunity to add, delete, edit or sort consequences.

The eighth section has a set of five icons illustrating various ways in which she can view and interpret her conceptual model based on her grid content, and the ninth and final section offers various additional options.

Continuing the Elicitation under Carol's Control based on WebGrid's Suggestions

Carol realizes from the questions in the fourth and fifth sections that she has not considered the consequences in terms of physical or emotional strain and chooses to add it as a consequence that distinguishes between the two possibilities "take a full-time job" and "have an affair.

She then rates all her other possibilities in terms of this consequence.

Interacting with the Clustered Grid to Assess Carol's Possible Courses of Action

By the time she has reached this point, Carol feels that she is really getting somewhere. Rather than go on adding more possibilities and consequences, she decides to look at a conceptual model based on her grid and make some decisions on that basis.

She clicks on the "Cluster" icon which provides a Focus analysis she has found useful before that sorts her possibilities to bring similar ones together, and sorts her consequences to bring similar ones together. She likes this approach because it does not change anything she has entered and she can see the relations between her ratings and the model.

Carol can see from the sorted grid that her possibilities cluster into three groups based on their consequences: emigrating and leaving her husband have similar consequences; taking courses or jobs have similar consequences; and, to a lesser extent, having an affair, carrying on as before or fostering a child have similar consequences. When she looks at the grouping of consequences, reversibility, excitement, independence and disrupting John group together.

The consequence "make more money—cost more money" does not seem to her to be important. She doesn't feel that her present predicament would be solved by gaining money or that an alternative should be ruled out because it would cost money. She clicks on it to remove it from consideration and the model changes a little.

Looking at the consequence "reversible—irreversible" Carol decides that she does not want to do anything irreversible. She knows that she is going through a hard time, but she doesn't want to overreact and do something she might regret later. Therefore, she clicks on the possibilities that seem irreversible "foster a child" and "leave husband" to remove them from consideration.

Looking at the consequence "would disrupt John—wouldn't disrupt John," Carol feels that she would not mind if John were slightly disrupted. After all, why should she be the only one to suffer all the time? But she doesn't want John to be greatly disrupted because he has worked so hard to give them both a high standard of living. With this in mind she decides to remove the possibilities "emigrate" and "take a Psychology course."

Looking at the consequence "humdrum—exciting" Carol realizes that the only really humdrum possibility left is "carry on as before." She is fairly sure that she does not want to carry on as before, so Carol removes this possibility.

Looking at the consequence "physical strain—emotional strain," Carol is fairly sure that she does not want any more emotional strain, although physical strain does not worry her much. As a result she removes the possibility "have an affair."

Carol is left with the possibilities "take a full-time job," "take a part-time job," and "take an evening class." Looking at these three possibilities in terms of her initial significant consequences "no gain in independence—gain in independence" and "humdrum—exciting" Carol can see that all three are roughly equivalent.

She could continue her interpretation but decides that she already has clarified many of her thoughts and feelings and has reduced her possible courses of action. Rather than carry on with the exercise, Carol decides that she would like to talk to John about the three possibilities. It is possible that he is so wrapped up in his work that he simply is not aware of her problems, so talking about these things would be a good way of introducing him to the problems.

Brimming with optimism and clear-headed, Carol feels that if she decides to take an evening class, perhaps she could take a psychology course and pursue her interest in people and their problems.

Saving Carol's Grid for Later Review

Carol is pleased with her grid and wants to keep a copy to review in future. She clicks "Continue" to return to the main WebGrid page, and then clicks "Save Grid" to keep a copy of her grid on her computer.

All she need do is use the "Save As..." command in the "File" menu of her browser to file her data on her disk. At any time she can re-open this file and it will automatically reconnect to WebGrid and let her review her possibilities, consequences and ratings again, edit them, add to them as further possibilities and consequences emerge, and generally keep track of whether she is actually improving her life.

If her relations with John improve she may someday share her thoughts about her life crisis with him, and maybe that will help them both. Meanwhile, sharing them with a friendly and supportive computer system has helped her clarify her options and encouraged her to take action to alleviate her problems.

Making a Decision Directly from the Clustered Grid

The scenario above follows as closely as possible that described in Think Again (Shaw and McKnight, 1981) where Carol develops a grid manually and has no tools for its analysis. Her sequential interaction with the grid in removing some possibilities is valuable in its own right as it encourages her to assess each of her possible courses of action in terms of what she sees as their likely consequences. However, it is also possible to arrive at much the same conclusions directly from WebGrid's graphic analysis of her conceptual model.

The cluster of possibilities at the bottom, having an affair, carrying on as before or fostering a child, can be seen as similar in that, although they would not disrupt John, they give Carol no gain in independence. The cluster at the top, emigrating or leaving her husband, do improve her independence but she does not see them as exciting and they do involve emotional strain. That leaves her with the cluster of taking courses or job in the middle, all of which she sees as reversible, exciting, gaining independence and not involving emotional strain. Out of those, she sees taking a psychology course as most disruptive to John and might prefer the others because of that, leaving her with same outcome as before. Thus, it is possible to come to conclusion based primarily on interpretation of the conceptual model created by using Focus to sort and cluster the grid.

Making a Decision Directly from the Mapped Grid

Carol used the Cluster analysis option to view and interact with her conceptual model because she likes to see her ratings as she thinks about her model. Others may prefer the Map analysis option next to it on WebGrid's main screen that treats the consequences as dimensions in space and plots a map of the options.

Carol can see from the mapped grid that her possibilities cluster into same three groups as before: emigrating and leaving her husband have similar consequences, irreversible and disruptive to John; taking courses or jobs have similar consequences, reversible, physical strain, exciting and gain in independence; and having an affair, carrying on as before or fostering a child have similar consequences, being humdrum, no gain in independence and not disrupting John.

The options of emigrating and leaving her husband seem unattractive because they are irreversible and disruptive so Carol clicks on them to remove them.

The option to foster a child seems humdrum and that to carry on as before is also humdrum and has no gain in independence. Carol removes both.

The option to have an affair involves no gain in independence and emotional strain so Carol removes it.

This leaves the job and course options in a very small map with little variation. Interestingly enough, the main source of variation left is the consequence of making money or costing money which, as already noted, is not important to her.

Making a Decision Directly from the Crossplot of Important Consequences

Carol can also use the "Crossplot" analysis to display her possibilities plotted in relation to her most important consequences, "gain in independence" and "emotional strain".

The three clusters and her primary considerations in choosing those in the top right quadrant are clearly apparent in this plot which provides a simple rationale for Carol's choice of possibilities on which to base her future plans.

Making a Decision based on an "Ideal Possibility"

Another technique commonly used when a grid has been developed to help in making a choice between various possibilities is to add an "ideal possibility" that represents the best possible choice, rate it on the consequences, and see what are the actual possibilities that most closely match it. Carol does this by clicking on the "Add" button by the side of her list of possibilities.

She enters "ideal course of action" as a new possibility, and rates it on six consequences she has already entered: as giving her a gain in independence, being exciting, neutral as to costing or making money, reversibl", neutral as to its effect on John, and preferring physical strain to emotional strain.

She clicks on "Add possibility" and returns to the main screen with the new possibility selected.

She clicks on the "Matches" icon and is shown the matches of the other possibilities to the new one (note that the options chosen are to match the selected possibility with all the others, with the cut off set to zero so that all matches show).

It is apparent that the highest three matches are those she had come to consider as most appropriate in the previous approaches discussed above. If she had clicked on the "Cluster" icon she would reach the same conclusion from the clusters shown.

And the same cluster of possibilities is apparent is she had click on the "Map" icon.


This example has shown how developing a grid can support a significant decision-making process. A number of approaches to interpreting the grid have been illustrated. It is not expected that all of them will be used or that they will be equally attractive and meaningful. What is important is that they all lead to much the same interpretation, showing that it is the grid, not the method of interpretation, that supports the decision. Users should be encouraged to explore different approaches and choose those they find most meaningful.

Note that much the same interpretation may be derived directly from clusters, maps and crossplots as from the interactive process of removing possibilities and consequence dimensions that was first described. However, direct interpretation may not give the same feeling for the underlying basis of the clustering as does the interaction. It is often more important that those making significant decisions understand the basis on which they are making them than that they are shown the 'right' choice to make relative to the way they construe the issues.

Note also that it may be 'obvious' that the more extreme options are not going to be chosen but it is important that they be considered and that their roles within the space of all options be made apparent. Sometimes those extreme options may become the appropriate choices despite their negative consequences, and it can then be important when choosing them to prepare to manage those consequences.



Carol's grid

Carol's grid with ideal possibility


Shaw, M. L. G. and McKnight, C. (1981). Think Again: Personal Problem-solving and Decision-making. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.