Encouraging risk, accepting failures

About two years ago, as the development team at SEI Investments Co. worked intensely to move a software project into production, a group of co-workers swarmed about in costumes, filming a skit to be played at the celebration party — once the project was successful.

If that seems a bit presumptuous, it also reflects the investment company's culture of embracing risk. "They didn't do that when I worked on Wall Street," says Jim McBride, head of application development for SEI's Global Wealth Platform team.

But success isn't guaranteed, and at SEI, failure is also an option. Management worries less about minimizing downside risk and more about optimizing outcomes. "It's OK to have a couple of failures if you're chasing the upside," McBride says.

SEI has no multilayered organizational chart. The IT department is an open expanse of floor space with no cubicles. Instead, hundreds of desks are on wheels, and staffers move daily to form ad hoc groups. In the SEI culture, those who perform well advance quickly, gaining bigger roles on higher-profile projects. "You can dramatically expand your responsibilities over a short period of time because the structure is so flexible," says McBride.

If advancement is the ultimate reward, the benefits don't hurt either. The rural campus in Oaks, Pa., located about seven miles from King of Prussia, includes running and hiking trails, a child care center and an in-house gym. People might take a break at any time of the day for a workout, which McBride says took some getting used to after working in a buttoned-down environment.

"For me, it's been a great change," he says.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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