Building a project management office in a disaster services environment

the Canadian Red Cross Society



How to manage projects in disasters? This paper will describe the implementation of a Project Management Office (PMO) at the Canadian Red Cross Society. It will describe its three phased implementation plan and how the PMO functions and supports during disasters. The portfolio of the Canadian Red Cross PMO is greater than 40 projects. Currently in its second year of operation (Phase 2), the PMO continues to evolve as the organization evolves. PMO services will be described as well as lessons learned and challenges faced during this successful implementation.


The Red Cross Society was founded in 1859 by a Swiss man named Henry Dunant during the battle of Solferino in Italy. Dunant was appalled by the ravages of war and decided to build a Society that would care for those affected by war without discrimination. The Canadian Red Cross Society was born in 1885 when Dr. George Sterling Ryerson fashioned a Red Cross flag and flew it to protect wounded soldiers during Louis Riel's North West rebellion. Currently there are Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in over 181 countries around the world who are associated globally with the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the International Committee of the Red Cross. In 1909 the Canadian Federal Government passed the Canadian Red Cross Society Act that legally established the Red Cross as the corporate body responsible for providing volunteer aid in Canada in accordance with the Geneva Convention.

The mission of the Canadian Red Cross is to improve the lives of vulnerable people by mobilizing the power of humanity in Canada and around the world. All Red Cross programs and activities are guided by our Fundamental Principles of Humanity, Impartiality, Neutrality, Independence, Voluntary Service, Unity and Universality. These principles allow us to provide help immediately to whoever needs it, wherever they are, whatever their race, political beliefs, religion, social status, or culture. Current programs include:

  • Disaster Services
  • International Programs
  • First Aid and Water Safety
  • RespectED: Violence and Abuse Prevention

The organization is divided by 5 zones: Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, Western and National Office with approximately 250 district or branch offices staffed with full-time and part-time staff and volunteers.

PMO Mission

The PMO was setup initially to:

  1. Monitor and report
  2. Develop a standard project management methodology, tools and templates
  3. Provide support and training to project managers and sponsors
  4. Build a project-centric culture

The PMO services all programs listed above EXCEPT International Programs. In addition many of the projects reporting into the PMO fall under the Corporate Services area such as: IT, Human Resources, Finance, Legal, Web Services, and Internal Audit.

Three Phase Implementation

A three phase implementation or evolution is envisioned for the PMO. These are:

  1. Implementation of Basic Building Blocks.
  2. Enhancing organizational project management maturity
  3. Strategic project management processes

Exhibit 1 depicts how each phase leads into the next with the resulting value increasing over time (Kerzner, 2003, p. 13-24).

Three Phase Implementation

Exhibit 1 – Three Phase Implementation

Phase One – Basic Building Blocks

Project Inventory and Organizational Project Management Maturity Level

Project Inventory

An inventory of national projects was conducted. (National projects are those which span and impact across the entire organization for example, IT and finance projects. These are usually conducted out of National Office in Ottawa, but not always.) Project wellness and current stakeholder satisfaction was assessed as well as current project management processes in use.

Organizational PM Maturity Level

As part of the inventory, an assessment of the current organizational project management maturity level was completed. This high level assessment was conducted by:

  • Interviewing senior management, project managers, project sponsors and stakeholders of projects
  • Conducting a project inventory and wellness assessment
  • Assessing project manager competencies

PMO Project Charter

Research (Lullen & Sylvia, 1999, p. 53) indicates that a key success factor to the implementation of a PMO is that the implementation be managed as a project, therefore, once the inventory and assessments were completed, a project charter was developed recommending a full service PMO (Carey & Peck, 2001, p. 40-47) focused on National initiatives. The charter was approved and phase 1 began. Key planning tools that were included in the charter were: the Stakeholder analysis, Communication/Marketing plan and Risk Assessment. Overall, the charter was an effective tool to educate senior management and ensure that recommended functions and services received their full support and approval.

Stakeholder Analysis

Identifying key stakeholders and building partnerships is critical to PMO success (Kerzner, 2003, p21). In this case, key stakeholders were interviewed to determine requirements, concerns and start developing working relationships. The analysis identified a large number of stakeholders at all levels of the organization. In fact, almost everyone in the organization was identified as a stakeholder or customer of the PMO.

Communication/Marketing Plan

Results from the Stakeholder analysis fed into the Communication and Marketing plan. Some resistance and uncertainty was identified during interviews thus it was determined that marketing was a key element to include in the Communication plan. There was a perception by many that project management is about bureaucracy and paperwork. (Added work that adds no value). The communication plan targeted all levels of the organization. As much as possible communications were presented in such a way to personalize the PMO. For example, a demo of project management is a standard part of our presentations where a juggler's hat is worn – a headband with 9 pipe cleaners suspending 9 colored ping pong balls representing the 9 knowledge area processes (PMI, 2004, p. 70). This was a great hit with senior management and the “PM Hat” is now becoming famous throughout the organization. Additionally, the PMO newsletter distributed throughout the organization is full of fun graphics providing brief project updates as well as educating on basic project management terminology.

Risk Assessment

A risk assessment was conducted to identify possible risks of the implementation and to develop processes to mitigate and avoid risks during implementation.

Standard Processes

Focus on implementing the basics was key to the initial success of the PMO (Young, 2001, p. 29). The first task of the PMO was to design and implement standard processes across the organization. These included project approval, closure, capturing lessons learned (Kerzner, 2003, p. 17), project change management and status reporting. Within two months of the start of the PMO a project inventory and consolidated project status report was presented to senior management and regular project review board meetings were scheduled.

Standard Methodology

The development of a standard methodology was also managed as a project which involved:

  • Researching existing standard methodologies focusing on A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)
  • Researching processes and tools that exist around the world and within the Red Cross.
  • Designing a simplified methodology that is specific to the Canadian Red Cross.
  • Seeking input and feedback from key stakeholders.

The resulting methodology begins with an introduction to project management and is structured by project phase. Each chapter contains an appendix with associated tools and templates used during that phase and a dictionary of project management terms. The final product was a collaborative effort among the PMO and key stakeholders across the organization and is considered very high quality.

Tools and Templates

Standard templates were developed within the first few months of PMO implementation. Again, research was conducted on best practices and existing tools outside and inside the organization. The resulting products are simple and specific to the Canadian Red Cross. All contain a user guide or instructions to educate those unfamiliar with the PM Process. Standard templates created included: project charter, project schedule, status report, risk assessment, communication plan, post implementation review, and stakeholder satisfaction survey.

Fast Track Training Approach

Since many staff was not familiar with project management processes and there was not a budget to provide organization-wide training, creative strategies needed to be created to “educate the masses” as quickly and effectively as possible.

Training, Workshops and Presentations
  • Cost-effective e-learning courses on the basics of project management were identified and offered to project managers and staff. The PMO continues to research cost effective advanced PM training options such as online courses, free webinars, etc.
  • A one-day PM Basics workshop was developed and piloted. Currently its effectiveness in the field is being evaluated.
  • One-hour presentations are conducted regularly to managers and staff to introduce the PMO and the basic concepts of project management.
On the job coaching

As Kerzner says, “Project Management mentoring is a critical project office activity”. (Kerzner, 2003, p. 18). On the job coaching has been found to be the most effective low cost training or educational tool (Young, 2001, p. 29). Project managers on projects reporting into the PMO receive considerable one-on-one coaching by PMO staff. Additionally, the PMO identifies capable senior project managers within the Society who are qualified to assist with mentoring. This process has served to build a support network for Society PMs who are dispersed across the country

Lessons Learned

As soon as the first project closed, the Post Implementation Review (PIR) process was implemented (Kerzner, 2003, p. 17). The process requires that the PMO facilitates a PIR and documents results and recommendations. PIRs are provided to senior management as well as made available to all staff to provide the benefit of sharing lessons learned. Also, a survey process was implemented whereby stakeholders are surveyed on their level of satisfaction on project delivery process, communications throughout the project and product quality.

PM Hiring

The PMO plays a key role in the hiring and placement of project managers for National projects. For smaller projects conducted outside of National Office, PM Hiring Tools were developed. Also, standard PM Job descriptions, roles and responsibilities and a PM & Sponsor contract template was developed to assist in the clarification of roles and responsibilities.

Assessing Phase 1

At the end of Phase One a stakeholder satisfaction survey was distributed to twenty key stakeholders to assess success of the PMO. Feedback received was extremely positive and it was decided to continue to Phase 2 with the writing of the Phase 2 charter. An annual report was submitted to senior management that highlighted the following accomplishments in Phase 1:

  • Implementation of a standard PM Methodology based on PMBOK® Guide
  • Development of standard processes such as approval, closure, reporting, post implementation review and change management.
  • Communications including presentations and quarterly newsletter.
  • 31 projects reporting into the PMO.
  • 0% project failure rate: 100% projects completed, tracked and reported, all changes tracked and approved.
  • Enhanced knowledge of project management and PM processes
  • Increased knowledge, awareness and acceptance of the PMO and the value it provides

Phase Two – Enhancing Project Management Maturity

At the conclusion of Phase 1 an assessment was conducted and a Phase 2 charter was developed. Learnings from Phase 1 were incorporated and since the basic building blocks were in place, new functions and services were recommended and approved such as:

  • Increased focus on organizational processes
  • Assessing OPM3® as a tool to assess organizational project management maturity
  • Portfolio Management
  • Expanding the scope of the PMO to include the monitoring of zone and/or program specific projects

The original intent was to pilot the PMO for two years and then assess the value for operationalizing. However, the PMO was operationalized in April 2005 at the start of Phase 2 – a testament to its value and its success.

Turn Key PMO Operation

It is the vision of the PMO to implement efficient tools and processes to manage the monitoring and reporting of its large, growing portfolio effectively and efficiently so that a minimum number of staff is required. Portfolio management softwares are being evaluated but currently the cost is prohibitive.


At the beginning of Phase 2 a small group of volunteers were recruited to assist with administrative tasks to free PMO Project Managers to do the critical project monitoring, support and coaching. A volunteer coordinator position was established to manage the volunteer group and delegate tasks. In turn, volunteers have gained valuable experience working in a PMO and knowledge of Red Cross projects and PM practices.

Maturing Tools

As tools and templates were piloted and then implemented, feedback was received which was incorporated into the new and improved tools. New tools and templates continue to be developed as the need arises.

Increasing Project Reporting

Criteria for reporting into the PMO have expanded from National and/or large projects to include those projects being managed within zones that fall within designated portfolios. The objective of this is to consolidate reporting and align project objectives within programs and of course, continue to educate and implement the use of the PM process.

Maturing Organizational Processes


The process of estimating return on investment was implemented as part of Phase 1, but the measuring and tracking of ROI was implemented in Phase 2. This requires further education of our project managers. Currently quarterly reports are generated reporting on current ROI for all ongoing and closed projects reporting into the PMO.

Portfolio Management

At the start of Phase 2 projects were grouped into portfolios such as IT, Finance, HR, Injury Prevention, Disaster Services and RespectED Programs. Currently, processes are under development for planning, assessment and management within each portfolio. The PMO will play a key role by coordinating portfolio management processes, assisting with project initiation and review (Foti, 2002, p. 27).

Resource Management

At the start of the PMO, very few resources were charged to projects. In most cases, staff took on the additional responsibility or were re-allocated to a project. The PMO vision is to implement an integrated resource management system (Kerzner, 2003, p. 21). As a first step, a time tracking/costing process for projects was developed in Phase 1 that was implemented for IT staff and project managers working on projects. In Phase 2 Time tracking has been expanded to include Web Services and some zone resources. The implementation of charging IT time to projects necessitated refinements in the IT cost estimation process, IT portfolio management, and resource management processes within IT. These have resulted in more effective planning, tracking and allocation of resources as well as improved ability to meet commitments to projects. The PMO plays a role here in consulting on the development of these processes as well as the tracking of resource requirements and project status.

PM Competencies

At the start of Phase 2, the PMO developed a detailed PM Competency Assessment based on the Project Management Institute (PMI®) PM Competency Framework. This tool is used at the end of each project to provide PMs with feedback and a development plan to enhance their skills. Additionally, the PMO plays an integral role in the ongoing development of project managers through on-the-job coaching, training, supporting PMP® certification etc.

Spreading the Word

The Communications/Marketing plan has expanded to include:

  • The identification of new stakeholders and, thus, the initiation of new working relationships.
  • Continued presentations to line managers and their staff and volunteers, thus expanding the awareness of the PMO and understanding of the value of the PM process.
  • The development and implementation of PM Basics Workshop.
  • PMO Intranet site (to go live October 2005).
  • Quarterly Project Manager meetings
  • Quarterly PM Tidbits.
  • A PMO Information Board at National Office that provides news on: project successes, new projects and/or project managers starting, PMO events etc.
  • Promotion of PMI® membership, attendance at local PMI® chapter presentations. In Phase 2 after the value of project management was proven there seemed to be a greater interest in PMI® and the career path of project management.

When Disasters Strike

PMO Value Add

When large disasters strike, the Canadian Red Cross Society jumps into “disaster mode” making the current disaster a priority for most of the organization. Much of the day-to-day operational work turns to focus on the disaster and many projects are put on hold as resources are re-allocated. Keeping projects moving as much as possible, tracking and reporting status, identifying impacts and kick starting projects after the disaster becomes the primary function of the PMO.

Keeping Projects Moving

For the projects that have dedicated resources not pulled into the disaster, these proceed and the PMO's role is to continue to support primarily in the areas where the project is impacted due to gaps in support that resulted from the disaster. For example, often IT resources are pulled into the disaster to create systems or tools. The impact of this on projects that keep moving is that IT resources are not available as planned. The PMO's role here is to anticipate and identify impacts, assist with mitigation strategies and if necessary the re-planning process.

Monitoring Projects on Hold

In many cases, projects do not have dedicated resources thus their resources are pulled into the disaster for their required expertise. Often, projects come to a dead stop because all resources are re-allocated. The PMO's role in these cases is to:

  • Monitor status of projects on hold
  • Identify impacts to other projects.
  • Report status to senior management.
  • Assist with the change management and re-planning process once the disaster ends.
  • Kick-start the project.
Kick Starting

After a major disaster, staff is exhausted and requires down-time to regenerate. The PMO's role at the end of a disaster is to encourage this regeneration time and then assist with the production of change approval requests and re-plans. In some cases project schedules are adjusted to deliver later but in some cases projects are kept on track by:

  • Reducing scope.
  • Obtaining resources from other departments, externally etc.
  • Crashing the schedule or fast tracking.

Phase 3 – The Strategic PMO

“The primary mission of the strategic PMO is to achieve a continuing increase in the organization's project management maturity and to link the organization's projects to its strategic plans. Improving the organization's project management maturity will increase the on schedule delivery, productivity and quality of work performed.”(Eidsmore, 2000, p. 40)

This is our vision for our PMO, thus, next Steps in Phase 3 include:

  • Expansion of portfolio management processes.
  • Continuing to address organizational processes in support of projects.
  • Continuing to expand awareness of the PMO and the value of the PM Methodology
  • Enhancing ROI assessment.
  • Implementation of new project management tools: online status reporting, online team workspace environments and portfolio management software.

Keys to Success and Lessons Learned

Senior Management Support

Ultimately nothing can happen without influential senior management support (Englund & Graham, 2001, p. 49). They need to provide direction contributing to the PMO's ongoing evolution, mandate the processes and use of tools and support when required. This PMO has been fortunate to have senior management support. Also, senior management is open to feedback from the field and this gets transferred down to the PMO to provide the opportunity to improve service and address issues as they occur.

Change Management

Every implementation requires some form of change management to be successful. The implementation of a PMO in this organization required considerable change management planning. Critical to the plan and already discussed was the communication plan, stakeholder assessment and risk management plan, but also critical was an understanding of the culture of the organization, ability to adapt based on the culture, the pacing of communications relationship building and service orientation.

Culture of the Canadian Red Cross

The Canadian Red Cross is over one hundred years old. There are many staff members that have been with the organization for most of their working lives and continue to be extremely devoted to the Red Cross mission and the humanitarian work of the organization. These people are extremely hard working and frugal – always concerned with the spending of donation dollars. There is incredible competency in the area of Disaster Services – reacting quickly and effectively to emergency situations. To implement a PMO and the structure involved required a good understanding of this culture. Initial needs analysis with stakeholders also involved learning the history and gaining an understanding of the culture (Englund & Graham, 2001, p. 49). Communications, the methodology, and tools were adapted for this culture.

The PMO continues to solicit input and feedback on all processes and tools before they are implemented. Additionally, after testing and implementation further feedback is solicited to ensure that they are effective in the field. Often tools are modified after implementation and many continue to be revised as the PMO learns about the organization. In all cases it is critical that the PMO not be perceived as inflexible so tools are often modified to fit particular situations without compromising the integrity of the process.

Relationship Building – work with integrity

This humanitarian organization is made up of people who are very effective at what they do and very caring. Working relationships are key at the Red Cross and thus the PMO continually strives to build those critical relationships (Kerzner, 2003, p. 21). The Red Cross Fundamental Principles of Humanity, Impartiality, Neutrality, Independence, Voluntary Service, Unity and Universality are core to the organization. Staff and volunteers really do live by these principles and thus it was also recognized early on that the PMO must demonstrate these principles. This PMO's operational values also include integrity, trust and respect. These have contributed considerably in building strong working relationships and support for the PMO.

Service Orientation

Everyone is aware that the PMO plays a “policing” role in ensuring that the PM process is followed on all projects but the focus of all communications has always been on the services and support provided by the PMO. Every stakeholder is considered a customer and at every opportunity, the question is asked, “how can the PMO support you?” This service orientation has contributed considerably to the success of the PMO.

Communicate Successes

Through presentations and status reports the PMO continues to communicate its success and value add. This is key to maintaining support from stakeholders and converting the skeptics that remain.

Make Sure That You are Adding Value

Research indicates that it is important not to assume that the PMO is adding value. We ask regularly and test assumptions. We review the PMO mission on a regular basis and adjust as the organization evolves (Young, 2001, p. 32).

Keep Staff Complement and Budget Down

In this cost conscious organization it was critical that the PMO was not perceived as a “National Office extravagance or overhead”. Staff complement is kept to a bare minimum and the PMO budget is kept to a minimum as well.


Overall, despite some resistance, there has been considerable support by staff eager for the benefits achieved by implementing a PMO and project management process. These supporters continue to evolve processes within their own areas and these trickle to other areas across the organization. This phenomenon, along with an effective three phase project plan has resulted in a successful PMO implementation that continues to evolve the PMO towards a strategic PMO.


Casey W. & Peck W. (February 2001) Choosing the Right PMO Setup PM Network 15(2), 40-47

Eidsmore, N. (2000, December) The Strategic Program Management Office PM Network 14(12), 39-45

Englund R. & Graham, R. (February 2001) Implementing a Project Office for Organizational Change. PM Network 15(2), 48-50

Foti, R. (April 2002) Priority Decisions PM Network 16(4), 24-29

Kendall, G & Rollins, S. (2003) Advanced Project Portfolio Management and the PMO, Multiplying ROI at Warp Speed Boca Raton, FLA:International Institute for Learning Inc.

Kerzner, H. (June 2003) Strategic Planning for a Project Office Project Management Journal 17(6), 13-25

Lullen, J. & Sylvia R. (1999, April) Getting Organized: Implementing the Project Office PM Network, 13(4), 51-55

Light, M. (July 2003). Magic Quadrant for Project Porfolio Management Retrieved on September 6, 2004, from

PM Solutions Inc (1996-2004) Fine Tune Your PPM Practices to make a lasting Business Impact Retrieved on September 1, 2004 from

Project Management Institute, Inc.(2004) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute

TenStep Inc. (2003) PortfolioStep Portfolio Management Framework Retrieved on September 1, 2004 from

Whitten, N.(2000) The EnterPrize Organization Newton Square, Pennsylvania: Project Management Institute, Inc.

Young, A. (2001, February) Project Office Start-up PM Network 15(2), 27-32

© 2005, Renee Cormier, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2005 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Toronto, Canada



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