Like many people over the holidays, I spent a substantial amount of time over-indulging in chocolate and TV. I have a propensity for true crime stories and was eager to watch the new documentary series on Netflix about notorious serial killer Peter Sutcliffe. Known as The Yorkshire Ripper, Sutcliffe murdered 13 women and attempted to kill seven more across the North of England in the 1970s.
Sutcliffe, who died on 13 November 2020 in a prison hospital, was sentenced to 20 concurrent life sentences back in May 1981. The mini-series revealed how this brutal murderers’ actions had left the British public, and women in particular, terrified to leave their homes for almost 6 long years.
Personally, I only have a very vague recollection of all of this. I was 10 years old when Sutcliffe was finally apprehended and living close to the border with Yorkshire. My mother, however, tells me she remembers it vividly and can still recall the feeling of intense fear during that dark period.
If you’re not already familiar with this real-life horror story, I’ll spare you the gruesome details here. Suffice to say, the documentary provides a very harrowing account of the crimes committed by the married lorry driver from Bradford – a monster no less.
The fumbled investigation
You may be starting to wonder why on earth I’m blogging about this? Well, it’s because it highlighted, for me, the importance of diversity and how it could have potentially saved lives in this instance. Let me explain…
The police investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper was the largest ever handled by the force. Over 2.5 million police man-hours were expended by a squad of over 200 officers. They’re reported to have carried out more than 130,000 interviews, visited more than 23,000 homes and checked 150,000 cars. Despite these efforts, the police failed to catch their man. Sutcliffe eluded the police for years. Unbelievably, he was even interviewed nine times!
Picture credit: DedMityay/Getty Images
If you look more closely at the investigation, one event stands out above all else. The huge manhunt was massively impeded by a hoax – someone else falsely claimed to be the killer. Those in charge of the investigation formed a profile of the killer based on a tape and hand-written letters sent to police by a man calling himself the Ripper. From that point on, many believe the lead investigators had tunnel-vision and completely discounted other potential theories and suspects, including Sutcliffe. This hoax, one of the most despicable in criminal history, is alleged to have cost the case £1million. Tragically, it allowed Sutcliffe to remain a free man and take three more innocent lives.
The Yorkshire Ripper was eventually caught almost by chance in January 1981 when police ran a check on his car to discover the number plates were stolen.
It could be reasonably argued that the team leading the investigation were very homogeneous – they looked the same (white men) and shared very similar views. It’s clear that some of the detectives who were quoted by the press and who appeared in TV interviews had largely misogynistic views about women, for example. Once fixated on their ‘hoax’ profile, they failed to consider other alternative roads of inquiry and therefore reduced their chances of success.
This made me think of teams in our business and how they function. In everyday working life, we are faced with problems we must solve and challenges we need to overcome.
How often do we consider diversity as the key to success?
You don’t have to look too hard to find studies to back up the argument the business case for diversity. Just last year, McKinsey reported a bunch of statistics demonstrating that the most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability. Other studies are also available if you’re curious and have access to Google – knock yourself out.
The more diverse a team is, the more you benefit from the differences that each individual brings to the table. The unique blend of varied backgrounds, life experiences, personalities, and the different ways we process information – that’s a recipe for success.
One such success story is New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern and her cabinet. I don’t believe it’s an accident that they’ve managed to have one of the world’s most successful coronavirus responses. With the most diverse cabinet in New Zealand’s history, this team fully represents the society it seeks to serve, proven by another landslide victory in the last election.
And it’s not only limited to better problem-solving. Studies also prove that diverse teams can significantly increase innovation – something we all rely heavily on.
Admittedly, it’s not always comfortable. Some people tend to feel more at ease when surrounded by people who look, talk, or think like them. But it’s important to step out of our comfort zone, to collaborate with people who are, in our eyes, different. It doesn’t happen accidentally, you may have to be more intentional about creating a diverse team, to proactively look for people who will enrich your team and make it smarter.
And we also have to be open-minded, to be willing to listen and to learn – which sometimes means confronting your unconscious biases.
I know from personal experience how it feels to different. I also know that I’m at my very best when I’m in a diverse team, one where difference is celebrated and not muted.
I can’t help but wonder how different events might have been if the Ripper squad had been more diverse back then. Would they have been quicker to connect the dots and find their man? But it’s not about looking back and having regrets; it’s about learning from the mistakes of the past and not repeating them now or in the future.
I’ll wrap this up with a little homework for you. Take a look at your team and ask whether greater diversity could be the key to your success?
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