Given how complex most people believe running a business to be, it is perhaps surprising that so much management time is apparently spent trying to find the one thing that makes the difference between success and failure. Total Quality Management, Business Process Re-engineering, Shareholder Value and a good many other concepts have all at various times been seen as the Holy Grail for ambitious managers - and all, while having much to commend them, have been found wanting.
To be fair, much of the impetus for these and other ideas has come from the business schools and management consultancies that advise these executives. But neither the business schools nor the consultancies would have gotten very far without willing audiences for their lectures.
Of course, the current downturn - with its attendant soul-searching about corporate governance in general and financial reporting in particular - has created some scepticism about what makes success. As well as some doubts about the wisdom of what the business schools and consultancies have been saying.
Indeed, many of the gurus who were so busy during the internet boom have been notably quiet of late. Nor has there been a rush to replace them. Rather than coming up with new ideas, slogans and rallying cries, management experts seem to have gone into a reflective mood of late.
And one of the more welcome results of this is the new book by Robert Heller. As the founder of Management Today and the author of a string of books, he has done more than most in this country to examine the theory and practice of management. The basic thesis of The Fusion Manager - that success in business is down to a variety of factors, some of them contradictory - is not exactly new. Nor is his attack on the supremacy of shareholder value unique. Other writers - notably Allan Kennedy, in his book The End of Shareholder Value - had spotted where adherence to that was leading even back in the boom, when organisations throughout the western world were still living by it.
But what Heller has done is to bring these elements and a few others together in a pithy, easily-digestible way and, moreover, at a time when companies and the people who run them are looking for new ways in which to win competitive advantage.
Encouragingly for them, Heller suggests that many of the things they need to do are the same or at least pretty close to those that they are already doing. These include improving efficiency or productivity; focusing on core activities; flattening hierarchies; sharing the rewards of success.
Where managers will find that it becomes more difficult is in not just doing many of these things simultaneously, but in also doing them at the same time as a lot of contradictory things.
The central paradox is that companies need to change while staying essentially the same. It has been argued before - particularly in the revered Collins and Porras book Built To Last - that businesses that stand the test of time tend to have enduring values and beliefs. This means that employees still have a sense of what is important even as they adapt to changing conditions and challenges. As Heller puts it, "you can only change successfully on a foundation of unchanging basic strengths".
It follows from this that the fad or flavour-of-the-month approach that has been so popular in the Anglo-Saxon management world is doomed to failure. "In the 21st century," Heller writes, "you need the very opposite and contradiction of single-theme management. You need Fusion Management." A notion borrowed from the kitchen, which has spawned about as many books in recent years as the office, this combines the desire of Western management for certainty and novelty with the Eastern awareness that nothing is certain and that management is essentially a human rather than a scientific matter.
So much for the theory. What makes the book compelling is the multitude of examples that drive the points home. While management gurus are apt to limit themselves to positive stories of how companies that have seen the light have prospered, Heller is just as likely to point to instances of failure. For example, he and others were originally impressed by how the car maker Ford was apparently stealing a match on competitors by cutting costs at the end of the 1990s, when times were still good. "And yet cutting costs is never enough, and as fusion managers know, is dangerously inadequate if imaginative, all-round strategic thought does not accompany and justify the cuts," he adds.
Even more tellingly, he recounts how Dell and Cisco Systems, two companies renowned for having state-of-the-art management systems, missed sharp declines in their markets - and suffered as a result. "The issue is not how good you are now, still less how good you were, but how good you are going to be," he says.
Though many of the examples are drawn from established companies - even if they are, like Dell and Cisco, relatively young - the book is just as relevant to owner-managers of growing businesses as it is to executives in large corporates. Indeed, the book ends with a chapter questioning why businesses need to grow. The answer is typically paradoxical, in that the world is changing so much that just standing still requires aiming for growth.