If you work in a large company, you probably have application designers, developers and product managers. And, one of your biggest challenges is to get them to work together, on the same schedule, with the same understanding of what you’re creating.

Jonathan Atkins is director of design for IBM Watson, having joined Big Blue about seven months ago from eBay. He understands that it takes all three of these disciplines working in harmony to create great, compelling products.

(Related: Getting all hands on deck with agile)

He said one of the biggest barriers to creating these great products is that the three areas have “a lack of shared expectations caused by communication problems. People have meetings where only some of the people can show up and participate; or there are hallway conversations where a couple of people will get aligned on something, but the larger group gets left out, so things get out of sync. And when you have three different disciplines all operating in parallel, this is not uncommon at all.”

Atkins said that about six months ago, IBM decided to fix the problem and align all three disciplines: design, development and what IBM calls “offering management.” Each discipline had its own processes, he said. Developers were using agile methodologies, designers were using design thinking, and the product (or offering) managers were using what they call the “operating model.”

“Out in the industry, you hear a lot of people, especially designers, claim that design thinking and agile aren’t compatible,” Atkins said. “They’ll say you can’t do proper human-centered design in agile, because everything is structured in two-week sprints, and that doesn’t give us enough time to get all of our user-centered research done and do the various prototyping activities we need to do because everything’s got to be done in two weeks. But I think that’s really a misunderstanding of how agile really works.

“When you really break these things down to their component parts, we found that they are totally harmonious, because design thinking is really a set of behaviors and a mindset of how you approach solving a problem. It’s not a project-management methodology. Agile, on the other hand, is a project-management methodology. And it’s one of the best out there. It’s probably the best way to manage a software project there is. If design thinking is all about the approach to solving the problem, and agile is the process of moving through time to solve that problem, then we can merge these two things together. And that’s what we’ve done.

“And really, agile is completely compatible with this, even at its fundamental core, because it has the structure of epics and user stories, and it’s all about what the user needs out of your piece of software, and that’s totally aligned with design thinking’s human-centered approach too. Both design and agile are both about the user at the end of the day.”

The third part of the story is offering management, which Atkins explained is “fundamentally about identifying the market and what the market needs from the products” so the organizations can provide value to their customers and to themselves.

“So again, that’s really the user-centric approach,” he said. “What does the user want from the product? When you align all three things around the user, we find that they’re very compatible with each other.”

Atkins said IBM is already starting to see improvements. “We have backlogs established for our different product lines, and those backlogs are the single source of truth. So everyone, be it an offering manager, a developer or a designer, all goes to the backlog for a common understanding of our goals…so everybody’s working on our same sprint schedule,” he said.

“We’ve got common approval processes for how work gets reviewed and approved regardless of the discipline as well. So that’s why we really decided to name our version of this whole process the Unified Operating Model. We really feel like we’ve taken three different disciplines that are typically talked about independently of each other and brought them all together into a single way of working. When you align everyone on common tool sets, common terminology, common timeframe, it’s amazing how many walls get broken down, and quickly. You really start to see the improvement in the efficiency and the reduced churn and the better communication, and it happens in just a matter of weeks when you start the process. That’s not to say we’re perfect at it; it’s a long journey…and this is not the first time I’ve done an agile transformation in an organization. And in my experience, it usually takes anywhere from 12 to 24 months to do the entire organization-wide transformation, but you start to see benefits very quickly.”