Experiential Learning

A sad history from Albania that helps consultants consider whether to base their expertise in data, experience, or both

I met a guy named Edon, a 43-year old Albanian with great English whose grandmother was shot in the leg at the age of 13. The shooting took place in a village on the other side of the mountain from Albania’s capital city of Tirana.

This was an accident, though, as the shooter was aiming for her older brother. 

The most surprising detail of this story was that the attempted killing was legal – he was the target of a blood feud.

Edon’s story got me interested in the history of blood feuds in Albania. I learned more in Ismail Kadare’s Broken April:

  • Albanian blood feuds were codified under laws called “the Kanun”, and common in remote, mountainous areas (which comprise most of the country)
  • These laws were overseen by a highland prince in the mountain city of Orkosh
  • His chief consultant, the “Steward Of The Blood“, collected a tax each time there was a blood feud killing – and kept detailed records
  • Thousands of blood feuds were recorded every year. And almost every calendar day of the year, over centuries, multiple killers came to Orkosh to pay the blood feud tax

As you might imagine, this system became a gruesome business model. Not unlike the private prison system currently in place in the US.

The more blood feuds, the fatter the bank accounts of this mountain prince. He was anxious when killings were down. Thus, he took measures:

  • laws were laden with technicalities to make reconciliation difficult
  • and dishonorable
  • old feuds were resurrected at the behest of eager, record-keeping clerks

Pattern Matching

In Broken April, an early 20th-Century Steward Of The Blood frets over a particularly bad year in blood-killing revenue. First, he pores over centuries of data in the record books. At a loss, he then saddles a horse and wanders through the land for answers.

Having traveled some, the steward reflects on the parallels between agriculture and blood feuds, along with tax revenue implications:

  • Old blood feuds were like old, long-cultivated fields, less productive but more consistent decade-over-decade. Fewer killings per year (as fewer bushels of wheat per year) but more reliable.
  • Conversely, a new blood feud was like a newly-cultivated field. If a farmer got lucky and hit a deposit of rich, volcanic topsoil, he might come away with a tremendous yield for a few years. Likewise, new feuds exploded with passion; dozens of lives might be taken with a few years.
  • On the other hand, the farmer’s luck might not last once a thin layer of nutrient-rich soil was depleted or washed away. Just as newly-begun blood feuds might be quashed quickly by wise elders seeking reconciliation.
  • A valley with a high ratio of tilled to untilled fields meant too few blood feuds  (farmers could hide at home safely and let their fields lie untilled). Thus, whenever the steward rode his horse to a high vantage point overlooking a valley, he could at a glance predict future blood feud revenue
  • Wars and natural disasters displaced villages or entire valleys, causing blood feuds to fade from importance and memory – war and invasion was bad for business
  • A valley with too high a ratio of untilled to tilled fields, on the other hand, meant too little food and agricultural tax income. Balance was needed.

Happy sidenote – blood feuds have been largely eliminated from Albanian and greater Balkan society (though not completely; there’s still work to be done). 

But what can we learn from this sad history? Firstly, take every opportunity to rewrite, revise, or reject rules, traditions, and best practices. 

But there’s also an insight-development lesson: the steward of the blood didn’t rely on data alone for understanding. He only formed valuable insights once he got on the horse and got the bigger picture firsthand.

If you aggregate enough data, sure, then it alone can be mined for patterns. In theory, that works for a huge business, such as industrial manufacturer Honeywell, energy conglomerate ExxonMobil, or the Big Tech monopolies.

But for the rest of us, maybe insight often comes from doing things.

How about you, where do get insights from? Can you get your hands on enough data relevant to your business to find insights from the data alone?