Every trade has a particular way of thinking. Teachers develop a specific thought process about instruction and classroom management. Plumbers see a building in a very different light than electricians do. A writer reads a text with an eye that no other person has. In general, work involves applying a particular way of thinking to the world.
Here is how an academic administrator works. First, we recognize problems and opportunities where other people see neither. I, for example, get bothered by multiple data re-entry, where we go electronic-manual-electronic-manual. This requires a lot of work, mostly not needed. I always have murderous thoughts about processes that may not be needed at all. Or, one of my colleagues has learned about one of our partner's troubles and figured out how wonderful it would be for us to expand our consulting portfolio while strengthening our partnership. That kind of thinking matches several considerations and sees an opportunity to advance.
The next skill is to prioritize problems and opportunities. There is never enough time and resources to address all challenges or pursue all opportunities, so one has to assess – is this a "do or die" situation, is this a once-in-a-lifetime chance, or can it wait? Is there someone really affected, or is this a small annoyance or someone's fancy? We have invisible scales to weigh a potential project for whether we can handle it or not.
Once we decide to try something, the key mental operation is selecting organizational tools. For example, we really need to maintain a connection with undergrads who are interested in teaching but are not in our programs yet. There are at least four different tools – organizational forms – that we can use. It can be a stand-alone program, a student club (both registered with student affairs or informal), or it can be a special class. Each of these potential solutions has a toolkit, with its own limitations and advantages. For instance, a stand-alone program needs someone to run it, and we should either pay that person or find someone who would do it as a part of their regular work. Faculty and staff have different labor arrangements, and it depends on who will run it. Student organizations rely on student leaders and faculty advisors and tend to be unstable over time. Classes work great because all university systems understand the language of academic courses. However, they are hard to make club-like and informal.
If you want to do something with faculty, there is a different set of options. Can it be done by a standing committee? By an ad hoc? Can the Dean's office do it? Can we find a champion who can actually deliver? Should we hire someone external, or give someone assigned time? Who would be receptive to running the project, and whom do we need to ask, beg, or bribe into participating? The set of available tools is limited, but there are always choices, and various costs, not always measured in money, but in time, effort, and the missed opportunity cost – all these people could have been doing something else, perhaps more useful to the organization. Think of a carpenter, pulling out the right tools out of his toolbox: which one will work, which one needs fixing, and which one he has to buy or build. That is what we do.
Because we need to run multiple mental models, thinking cannot be done alone. You need a team that would play various scenarios in their minds and alert of potential advantages or problems. This is really an exercise in imagination, based on the team's knowledge of the larger system's capacities and limitations. We also imagine how specific people would do something and what sort of support and controls they need. The team thinking takes time and has to be organized as well. Planning to plan is another idiosyncratic thing we do.
Lastly, one has to put all of it in a timeline. How long does it take to find someone? To schedule a course, first as a pilot and then propose curriculum? How long does it take to hire student assistants? Who would help when, what are the unknowns, when do we learn them, and when do we adjust? You sort of lay all your ducks in a row, project your story into the future, and set up checkpoints.
Not all projects work out, some because they were improperly designed, made wrong assumptions, or were mismanaged, others for unknown reasons. Therefore, there is a special skill to sense that point in time when you're beating a dead horse, or throwing good money after bad, whichever metaphor works for you. The ability to pull the plug in time is also a part of the administrative mindset that people from other fields may or may not have to possess.
What deans and other academic administrators do is match – interests with resources, problems with tools, people with organizational forms and processes. Our core function is not glorious and not public. In the end, it is a kind of service. Just like facilities personnel do not teach, they make sure the lights are on, and toilets flush. Similarly, we make sure the organization runs smoothly and improves with time.