From engineers we expect evidence, from architects confidence

From engineers we expect evidence, from architects confidence

by Joris van den Aker

In the realm of systems engineering, striking the balance between evidence and confidence is an intricate dance.

A few days ago I met an R&D manager of one of our industry partners. We reflected on our Systems & Leadership Development Program in which they participate with a number of their senior (future) system architects. When discussing expectations, he stated "from our engineers we expect evidence, from our architects confidence". For me this is where he nailed it. Evidence and confidence, encapsulate the essence of what it takes to thrive in the world of systems engineering.

At TNO-ESI, we are offering systems architecting competence development programs to industry for many years. Through this journey, we've come to understand that competence development encompasses more than just imparting methods, knowledge, and tools. It also delves into the realms of mindset, leadership, interpersonal relationships, culture, managing uncertainties, and introspection.

During the early stages of product development, when many aspects are still uncertain and there isn't ample evidence, architects must make crucial decisions. Delaying or making incorrect choices during this phase can lead to significant repercussions. What is the intricate relationship between evidence and confidence in systems engineering, and how they factor into the process of competence development.

The Duality of Evidence and Confidence

The R&D manager's succinct observation underscores a fundamental duality in systems engineering. Engineers are tasked with providing evidence, relying on rigor, data, and established methodologies to validate their work. Architects, on the other hand, must exude confidence, drawing on a blend of experience, intuition, and an understanding of the bigger picture. And yes, also build on evidence where possible, based on knowledge, experiments, etc.

Evidence in Systems Engineering

In the world of engineering, evidence is the cornerstone. It's the empirical foundation that lends credibility and reliability to the work. Engineers must wield a mastery of methods, analytical tools, and a deep understanding of the domain to provide robust evidence. However, in complex systems, there are moments when engineering approaches fall short. Uncertainties abound, and the methods may not yield the level of evidence required.

This is where engineers must venture beyond the tried and tested. They must be willing to explore, embrace ambiguity, and sometimes, rely on partial evidence supplemented by expert judgment. It's a delicate balance between rigidity and adaptability, where experience and intuition play a pivotal role.

Confidence: The Architect's Prerogative

Architects operate in the realm of uncertainty and ambiguity. They navigate the complex landscape, weaving together myriad components and disciplines. Their decisions often rely on a synthesis of experience, intuition, and an innate understanding of system dynamics.

Confidence is not just a personal attribute, but a cultural one. It permeates through teams and organizations, setting the tone for how challenges are approached. A confident architect inspires trust and fosters an environment where creativity flourishes. They understand that absolute certainty may be elusive, yet they forge ahead, drawing on their expertise to chart a course through the unknown.

Competence Development: Beyond Methods and Tools

To develop systems engineering competencies, it's imperative to recognize that it's more than a matter of mastering methods and tools. It encompasses a holistic approach that includes:

1.       Mindset Shift: Encourage a mindset that embraces uncertainty and complexity. Foster an appetite for continuous learning and adaptation.

2.       Leadership Skills: Equip engineers and architects with the skills to lead in dynamic, uncertain environments. This includes decision-making under uncertainty and effective communication.

3.       Interpersonal Relationships: Nurture an environment of collaboration and trust. Recognize that the strength of a team lies not only in technical prowess, but also in effective interpersonal dynamics.

4.       Reflection and Learning: Create spaces for reflection and learning from experiences, both successes and failures. This iterative process is invaluable for growth and development.


In the intricate world of systems engineering, the interplay between evidence and confidence is the heartbeat that drives progress. Engineers and architects, armed with a blend of empirical rigor and experienced intuition, are poised to navigate the complexities of today's systems. Competence development must transcend the boundaries of methods and tools, encompassing mindset, leadership, relationships, and reflection. As we navigate the uncertain terrain of complex systems, let us remember that it's not just about what we know, but how we apply it, and the confidence with which we forge ahead. In this dance of evidence and confidence, we find the rhythm of progress.